A year ago, the Sri Lankans seemed to be resuscitating from a whole lot of debris heaped upon them after the retirements of a few stalwarts, when they beat Australia 3-0 at home. There was a breath of fresh air with quite a few promising youngsters coming into the squad, yet something seemed to be amiss.
That was confirmed the moment India set foot on the island nation this year. The Indians were on a relentless march towards becoming the best Test team in the world and Lanka, for them, was a meek challenge.
But nobody would have expected the ruthless Indians to bulldoze the Lankans with such cold-blooded intensity as they did. The aftermath of that series left the islanders gasping for breath and exhausted, made them the butt of quite a few jokes on social media and pushed them to a corner.
And then the BCCI announced that Sri Lanka are due to tour India back (for Tests, ODIs and T20s!) for a series a few months later. It would seem nonsensical to believe that the same Sri Lankan side which surrendered timidly would be able to muster enough courage, fight off their woes and churn out performances good enough to test the Indians.
However, the 'Lions' are most dangerous when cornered and wounded. They fight back with renewed vigour and purpose. They summon the last ounce of energy in them to retaliate and hurt the enemy.
The Lankans were in a dismal state after their lacklustre show against India. The series was followed by a trip to the UAE, a country where Pakistan ruled the roost and hadn't surrendered a series till then. For the beleaguered side led by Dinesh Chandimal, it seemed a frontier too huge to conquer.
What unfolded in the next few weeks was mesmerising. Teams like England and Australia had come to the UAE and gone back empty handed, lacerated by the meticulous Pakistanis – hurt severely by their pace battery, bruised badly by their spinners and hammered to submission by their batsmen. The UAE was indeed a fortress ruled by the 'Men in Green'.
But two weeks after, Sri Lanka had whitewashed them 2-0 and taken the series, and honour of being the first team to defeat Pakistan in a series in the UAE since it became the latter's de facto home.
The Lankan pace bowlers outbowled their Pakistani counterparts, their batsmen – in particular, seniors like Dinesh Chandimal and Dimuth Karunaratne – outbatted the Pakistanis and they fielded and fought with courage and determination.
It was a show worth beholding. Battered and bruised by India, hit so hard that a resurrection looked impossible in the near future, Sri Lanka had staved off their inconsistencies to surprise themselves. They might have lost the ODIs 5-0 and the T20I series 3-0, taking the sheen off the fabulous Test series win, but somehow they don't seem like pushovers, three months after that horrifying series at against Virat Kohli's men.
Sri Lanka coach Nic Pothas believes that his players have learnt some vital lessons from the mauling back home.
"When we took on India, we were all pretty new - from the support staff to the players. But what has changed for us is internal - the discipline, the culture and how the team stuck together and the characters that we picked. Skill and preparation have changed as well. We are now a team that prides itself in its culture," Pothas said on arriving at Kolkata, the venue for the first Test of the series.
Sri Lanka are in India after eight long years and have a dismal record in the country, having lost 10 of the 16 matches played and never having won a Test in India. That is a rather surprising record given that the Indian pitches are rather similar to those in Sri Lanka.
They may not be equipped enough to win the series but definitely look good enough to compete. The batting line-up has undegone a few changes from the previous series against the Indians, with Sadeera Samarawickrama expected to partner Karunaratne at the top after Kaushal Silva was unceremoniously sacked form the team.
The young Samarawickrama justified the swap by exhibiting some eye-catching strokes in the warm-up game against Board President XI where Karunaratne also shone.
The left-handed Karunaratne is Sri Lanka's best bet given his form in recent times. He was among the only few batsmen to counter the Indians spinners reasonably well the last time around and has come with an equally good mindset to India.
"I know Jadeja and Ashwin are both hungry for wickets. Every time they bowl it's about sticking to the basics. If I don't give them any chance, they will try to do something else. If we need them to change the field you have to do something extra. That's my gameplan... I wait for the loose ones and I will stick to that. If it does not work I will think out of the box and give some extra pressure to the bowlers," Karunaratne had told reporters during the tour match against Board President's XI.
Similarly, Kusal Mendis was dropped after a string of poor performances, although he was among the only two Lankans to have scored a hundred against India in that horrendous series at home. Dropping Mendis was probably a touch rushed but the inclusion of Lahiru Thirimanne should add some experience to the top order and Dhananjaya de Silva is another young talented batsman who can stake his claims in the Test side.
De Silva was particularly impressive last year against the Aussies but was subsequently dropped after some inconsistent performances. However, his penchant for playing on the rise and using his feet against the spinners make him a handy pick.
With Chandimal, Angelo Matthews and Niroshan Dickwella manning the middle-order, the islanders have experience blended with aggressive, counter-attacking options. Even without Asela Gunaratne, the batting looks way better than it did a few months ago.
On the bowling front, Rangana Herath should once again be under the microscope, but the veteran left-arm spinner may want to learn a few lessons from how Steve O'Keefe and Nathan Lyon bowled at the Indians earlier this year. Herath was easily countered by the fleet-footed Indians in the series in Sri Lanka, but knowing more of what to expect now, the Sri Lankan is sure to put in a better effort into his bowling.
Complementing him would be Dilruwan Perera, who appeared rather flat against India in a few months ago, but did extremely well with bat and ball in the UAE to lift his career prospects. The pitches in India and his all-round ability should make Perera a certain starter although Lakshan Sandakan, the third spinner in the squad, could be a surprise weapon. It could well be possible to see the visitors wield a three-man spin attack although it appears a bleak prospect in Kolkata.
With bases covered in the slow bowling front, the pace bowlers led by Suranga Lakmal need to be as meticulous as they were in Pakistan and given their recent performance, it cannot be totally overruled that the faster men could pose a few questions. On the quicker Kolkata wickets, they are likely to find more seam movement, something which India have always struggled against. If at all they pick a second seamer, it could be a toss up between Dasun Shanaka, the all-rounder, and Lahiru Gamage, who does have quite a useful armoury up his sleeve.
Somehow, this Sri Lankan side has a better feel about them and underestimating them could be a mistake. After all, they did churn out a surprising performance in the Champions Trophy to upstage the Indians earlier this year. Although in limited-overs cricket such debacles are more common, there is a vibrant, new-found energy about this group after the Tests against Pakistan and it might just have put them into a better frame of mind for India. Besides, they do know have an idea of what to expect. A wounded lion is always dangerous!