Three hundred and thirty-seven. That's the number of days since India last played a Test match away from home. In those 11 months and three days since the Antigua Test against the West Indies, India played 13 home Tests, won 10, drew two and lost one. They were rampant and unstoppable. Only Australia could provide some sort of friction on India's path to the summit of Test cricket.
However, the last couple of months seemed longer than those 337 days without an overseas Test as the captain-coach tug of war was played out in front of the world. The coach selection drama and the race to outsmart each other amidst the BCCI-CAC-COA chaos only added to the embarrassment. The two months were more dramatic than an episode of Game of Thrones.
In the end, the captain had his say and so did the new coach. With the off-field storm seemingly appeased and reunion of the old support staff, India would look to hit the refresh button and get into the groove early into a challenging season as they embark on a month-long Sri Lanka tour.
The Island tour gains importance as it will serve as prelude to a string of tough overseas tours including South Africa, England and Australia tours in the next twelve months. It was the 2015 Sri Lanka tour that marked the turnaround in India's fortunes after facing the ignominy of going winless in seven overseas series which included six series losses. It was the Galle Test that splashed water onto India's faces almost as if to say, "It's time you woke up". That loss impacted India and Virat Kohli's captaincy in a big way. India came back from behind to win the series 2-1 and it instilled some much-needed belief that India could win away from home.
No wonder it's entrenched deep in the minds of the Indian players, especially Kohli. A lot has changed in the last two years, Kohli — who was leading India in his first full series as captain — has matured and so has Ravi Shastri, by his own admission. However, Kohli asserted that they will go into the series with the same mindset and learning of the 'landmark' 2015 tour.
"I think that (2015 Sri Lanka tour) was a landmark tour," Kohli said in the pre-departure press conference in Mumbai.
"The mindset was to try and win the series. Losing the first Test was a shock to us but the way we bounced back was only because of the team culture created at that stage. We showed more belief in our abilities and that we could win from any situation and from then on you could see the results that we have had so far. The same mindset would apply now what we started back in 2015.
The players have matured from then (2015 Sri Lanka tour) on. It’s been 24 months, but that tour was the start of the belief system that we can win away from home," Kohli said. We do have the side required to win away from home, we do have a culture that has been created in the team to win whatever test matches or series we play," Kohli added.
It won't be easy getting into the groove quickly, India have been disconnected from five-day cricket in the last five months. They have played just ODIs and T20Is, while Kohli has stressed on the importance of training hard, he feels that once you get onfield, "everything falls into place."
Sri Lanka, on the other hand, have been grappling with transition problems for longer than expected. The ODI series loss to Zimbabwe had the caution lights flashing in their faces. The restructuring commenced with Angelo Mathews stepping down as captain and Dinesh Chandimal taking over. Former South Africa wicketkeeper-batsman Nic Pothas had already taken over as interim coach after Graham Ford quit following a dismal Champions Trophy campaign. Hashan Tillakaratne and Chaminda Vaas were installed into the coaching setup as temporary batting and bowling coaches respectively.
The experience of Angelo Mathews, Rangana Herath, Dinesh Chandimal and Upul Tharanga provides a strong spine which is laced with the talent of Kusal Mendis, Asela Gunaratne and Niroshan Dickwella. However, their biggest challenge is to achieve stability and consistency. The uncanny habit of springing surprises and scripting comebacks is all good — they performed the Houdini act against Zimbabwe at the R Premadasa Stadium against Zimbabwe a few days ago, against Australia in Pallekele in 2016 and the most dramatic of all, the 2015 win over India at Galle — but they desperately need to look at the larger picture.
The India series hasn't started well for the hosts with newly-appointed captain, Chandimal, ruled out of first Test with Pneumonia. Veteran left-arm spinner Herath will lead the side in his absence. While the series is dubbed as Herath vs India, Sri Lanka would expect crucial contributions from their pace battery of Suranga Lakmal, Nuwan Pradeep, Lahiru Kumara and Vishwa Fernando. That Sri Lanka have included four seamers in the squad for the first Test, hints at the strategy of preparing seamer-friendly pitches. Preparing spinning pitches may backfire given that Indian batsmen are generally good against spin and possess a lethal spin attack in Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav.
Sri Lanka have brought in 30-year-old domestic veteran Malinda Pushpakumara — a left-arm spinner with 558 first-class wickets at 19.85 — to strengthen the spin department but it will be interesting to see whether the hosts will opt for two similar spinners in Pushpakumara and Herath.
With a relatively inexperienced bowling attack, Sri Lanka's batting remains their main strength. With the burden of captaincy off his shoulders, Mathews needs to hit the top gear especially having endured tough period with the bat in last couple of years. He's averaged 28.26 in his last 26 innings with a top score of 80. A look back at the 2015 tour might instill some confidence where he hit his last century including two on the trot.
What ails the Island nation is their fielding which has been more porous as a colander in the last few years and Chandimal is aware of it.
"I've thought about how we became so weak in fielding, and tried to work out how we can fix it," The Sri Lanka captain said before the Zimbabwe Test this month. "I talked with the coaches as well. Even in training, if we catch 100 flat catches, 100 high catches, and 100 ground fielding balls, the pressure that we have in the game is missing. I talked to the coaches and told them that what I want is to do those drills under something similar to match pressure. Then we have a target and feed off each other's energy. In the last few days that's what we did. I think we'll be able to improve a lot in our fielding with those measures."
In comparison to Sri Lanka, India appear to be a much more balanced side. A fear-inducing spin attack coupled with strong batting line-up and a much-improved pace battery make them a formidable side. For some, it's a crucial series — Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma, Abhinav Mukund and Mohammad Shami will look to reinvigorate their careers following poor form or long injury lay-offs. Whereas Hardik Pandya and Kuldeep will be looking to make a mark.
Ishant Sharma will have fond memories of the previous tour to the Island nation as it was the last time where he scalped a five-for in Tests, in Colombo. Since then he's been more of a session/spell bowler rather than a match-winning one. Given his experience and ability, he's somewhat underperformed in his career so far and with strong competition brewing, he needs a strong turnaround.
The visitors have warmed up well with a decent performance in the two-day practice game, skittling Sri Lanka Board President's XI for 187 and then amassing 312/9 declared.
That Sri Lanka have not lost a home series at home since that loss to India two years ago will imbue the hosts with confidence.
The fact that India have lost more matches than won (7 losses and 6 wins) on the Sri Lankan soil and still possess best win/loss ratio of 0.86 away from home (Min. 10 Tests played), speaks volumes of their overseas struggles.
Despite all the heroics at home, India's might will be gauged by their overseas performance. Two years ago, it was the Island tour that helped them break the duck, this time around it may prove to be a stepping stone for success overseas.
- Rangana Herath's bowling average of 41.62 against India in Tests is the worst for him against a country in Tests.
- India's win/loss ratio of 0.857 in Sri Lanka in Tests is the highest for them in a country outside India. (Min. 10 Tests played)
-India have lost only one Test series out of last five against Sri Lanka. They have won three and one was ended in a draw.
- Malinda Pushpakumara has taken 558 wickets in First-class cricket from 99 matches so far. He picked up 77 wickets in Sri Lanka's Premier League Tournament in 2016/17 which was 20 more than the bowler after him in the list in the mentioned tournament.
With stat inputs from Umang Pabari