When Virat Kohli walks out to flip the coin at the Eden Gardens on Thursday, standing next to him would be the familiar spectre of a Sri Lankan captain. Such has been the frequency of India-Sri Lanka engagements in recent years that it’s easy to ignore the context and question its relevance.
The teams have met 91 times across formats since 2007, making it the most regular bilateral bust-up of the decade. That the win-loss record reads 31-8 in India’s favour since 2011 makes it one of the most one-sided one as well.
India returned from a full-fledged tour of the island nation just two months back, and riding on the 9-0, across-format hiding they gave to the hosts, went on to beat Australia and New Zealand in limited-overs cricket.
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, went on a high of their own, surprising themselves with a 2-0 sweep over Pakistan in the UAE — the latter’s maiden series loss since shifting base.
India though are a different beast. Such has been the form of Virat Kohli’s men since the Australia tour of 2014-15 that they have won 20 of the 29 Tests thereafter, the most by any team.
The intervention of retired judges, transition under a new captain, and the unceremonious changing of coaches have done little to slow down the Indian juggernaut that has displayed a remorseless ruthlessness reminiscent of the Aussies of yore.
More importantly, India have lost just two Tests in this period, and first of those losses came against, well, Sri Lanka. Rangana Herath glowed, glared and glowered on that madcap August afternoon in 2015 as his seven wickets pushed India to lose a Test they should have won. The rearguard, however, was started by current skipper Dinesh Chandimal, whose 169-ball 162 gave Herath the cushion to weave his magic.
Sri Lanka would hope the duo does an encore against a side that their interim head coach Nic Pothas, not too long back, compared with the All Blacks. The visitors' record in India though paints a grim picture. Out of the 17 Tests that they have played in India, they have lost 10, never once threatening to upset the applecart.
Last time Sri Lanka played red-ball cricket in India, Kohli was yet to score the first of his 32 One-Day International (ODI) hundreds, and was a year from his maiden Test appearance. In the winter of 2009, India’s batting order boasted of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, and VVS Laxman. Hell, even Pragyan Ojha and S Sreesanth played Tests back then.
Much of the India squad that last hosted the islanders has either retired, become part of the Cricket Advisory Committee (CAC), taken up commentary assignments, or appeared in reality shows. Some, like Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir, and Harbhajan Singh, are in the final lap of their careers, waiting to call time.
Only Ishant Sharma and Murali Vijay remain. Sharma was into his third international season, that famous spell to Ricky Ponting perched firmly on his skinny frame like an albatross. It still does.
Vijay, who made his debut the previous season, was a conveniently disposable option. He no longer is.
Sri Lanka have changed too. No longer do they have the silken grace of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, or the guile of Muttiah Muralitharan. The problem, however, is that they have failed to find reliable, all-weather middle-order batsmen since the departure of their twin towers.
Lahiru Thirimanne, touted as their big hope, has been, to put it euphemistically, a disappointment. A career average just over 23 doesn’t speak of a specialist Test batsman, and the southpaw would like to make it count in India, more so after collecting seven runs from two innings in the Abu Dhabi Test against Pakistan in September.
Rangana Herath is still around though. His international career had seen 12 seasons when he last visited India, and he ploughed along under the shadow of his great contemporary. In the years that followed, he would quietly become one of world’s most potent bowlers — 335 of his 405 Test wickets have come after that 2009 series. Only England’s James Anderson has had more success, but his 358 wickets have come from 85 Tests, 21 more than Herath. Among spinners, Ravichandran Ashwin is next with 292 scalps. The gulf is gaping when the comparison is narrowed to left-arm spinners; Ravindra Jadeja is second with 155 victims.
However, for all his mystifying numbers, Herath’s record against India — traditionally considered among the finest players of spin — has been rather ordinary. His 32 wickets against the hosts have come at an average of 45.96, the strike rate reads 82.8, and he concedes 3.33 runs-per-over to India, each of the last three numbers being his worst among all the countries he has bowled to.
India though should be wary of Chandimal and opener Dimuth Karunaratne, who scored a majestic 141 against them in Colombo about three months back to go with his 97 in the series-opener in Galle.
Both these batsmen have appeared unflustered by the looming threat of Ashwin and Jadeja, and more importantly, in the company of Niroshan Dickwella, have shown a way to tackle the spin threat.
Dickwella and Karunaratne employed a series of conventional, reverse, paddle and slog sweeps to throw India’s spin-twins off their length in Galle and Colombo, but it was Chandimal who set the template back in 2015 in course of his match-turning hundred.
Both Chandimal and Karunaratne are coming off match-winning tons in Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively, and have shown a penchant to score big hundreds. The duo, and Dickwella, remained unbeaten in the lone practice game against Indian Board President’s XI as well, with Karunaratne and Dickwella scoring brisk fifties. While the Board President’s attack was hardly Test-quality, the time spent in the middle does help.
India, on their part, have rested Hardik Pandya for the series. Rohit Sharma would like to return to the Test XI, and given his superb all-round record at the Eden, Kohli could be tempted to play him in the first Test. Also, the return of fit-again Murali Vijay opens a three-way battle for the openers’ slot with Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul in the mix.
The Indian team management would do well to try as many combinations as they can ahead of the South Africa tour, which starts five days after the last ball of the T20 series is bowled in Mumbai.
Squads: India (for first two Tests): Virat Kohli (captain), KL Rahul, Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane (vice-captain), Rohit Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha (wicketkeeper), Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammad Shami, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma.
Sri Lanka: Dinesh Chandimal (captain), Dimuth Karunaratne, Dhananjaya de Silva, Sadeera Samarawickrama, Angelo Mathews, Lahiru Thirimanne, Rangana Herath, Suranga Lakmal, Dilruwan Perera, Lahiru Gamage, Lakshan Sandakan, Vishwa Fernando, Dasun Shanaka, Niroshan Dickwella (wicketkeeper), Roshen Silva.