The Kolkata Test seems to be a glimpse of the things to follow. The elements it offered were uncharacteristic: green deck, damp conditions and consistent carry. Sri Lanka, who won the toss and opted to bowl, were in control of the Test for almost four days before collapsing like nine pins in the final session. The Indian cricket fanatics accepted the twists and the surprises gleefully. The same can be said about the players. Given an option, Suranga Lakmal would've gift-wrapped the pitch and cheerfully kept it in his suitcase. Bhuvneshwar Kumar also relished in friendly conditions and picked up eight wickets. One can safely call him the Eden Gardens specialist now.
There were murmurs before the commencement of the Test series, that it will be a litmus test for the overseas tours to follow, a launchpad against an opposition that not so long ago was thumped embarrassingly. Without respecting Sri Lanka's presence, the attention shifted to the daunting pace of Kagiso Rabada, Dale Styen's sharp swing and Morne Morkel's love for bounce. But as the match progressed, it became apparent. Even India had an eye on the South African series and it was confirmed shortly after the game.
“It is obviously clear that we're preparing for the next two years that we're going to travel abroad and play overseas and we're going to find wickets like this and it is going to be challenging for all of us,” KL Rahul told bcci.tv.
With the Indian opener all but accepting the approach of the Indian team management, it will not be wrong to assume that the upcoming Tests may feature similar, if not same, tracks. And if we set the Kolkata Test as a precedent for those challenges and ask, are India prepared for it? The answer would be no.
The fragilities in the Indian batting were visible when they were asked to bat by Dinesh Chandimal. Rahul and Virat Kohli fell to good deliveries but Shikhar Dhawan, Ajinkya Rahane and Ravichandran Ashwin’s lack of patience didn't make for good reading. They all adopted impatient escape routes on a pitch that demanded the batsmen to grind it out. Dhawan went on to compile an aggressive 94 but by then the pitch had eased out. Only Cheteshwar Pujara displayed the temperament needed on a grassy wicket. His knock underlined the utmost importance of patience in testing conditions, and assistant coach Sanjay Bangar will likely emphasise on it.
The bowling also, sans Bhuvneshwar and Mohammed Shami, lacked penetration. Umesh Yadav’s battle of finding rhythm led to a persistent run-flow throughout the match. The Vidarbha pacer was playing at the highest level after a considerable gap and his age-old accuracy problems resurfaced, which forced the duo of Bhuvneshwar and Shami to share a major chunk of the workload. Umesh will be looking to bowl in the correct areas just like he did during most of the home season last year and in early 2017. With Ashwin and Jadeja not featuring in Virat Kohli’s plans due to the conditions, one wonders, in hindsight, whether there was room for Kuldeep Yadav, who made his debut in similar conditions against Australia in Dharamsala and turned the ball from day one, in the starting eleven.
Nonetheless, the manner in which Kohli’s men finished on the fifth day (three wickets from an improbable victory), would have instilled confidence in the Indian camp. Had it not been for bad light and the ridiculously poor over-rates, a result would’ve been certain. All three actually, not necessarily an Indian win.
Bhuvneshwar and Dhawan have been released from the squad due to personal reasons and Tamil Nadu’s Vijay Shankar has received a call-up. Shankar’s selection is a clear indication that the selectors see him as Hardik Pandya’s back-up. Replacing a bowler with an all-rounder also suggests that he could be the third or fourth seamer India sorely missed in Kolkata. Batting is his stronger suit in first-class cricket but his primary role, if selected, will be that of a bowler.
India opted for three pacers, two spinners or, quoting Kohli, ‘all-rounders’ and six batsmen in the first Test. Apart from the obvious changes — Murali Vijay, Ishant Sharma for Dhawan and Bhuvneshwar — the hosts might go with the same eleven.
Sri Lanka were written off even before the series began. The general atmosphere surrounding it was, “Yawn! Another India-Sri Lanka series.” But they not only silenced the critics but discovered their strengths with an encouraging performance. They committed errors but some or the other player stood up to pull them out of trouble. They very well could have succumbed to pressure in the last hour of the match but the senior statesman Rangana Herath and Dasun Shanaka kept their nerves as their captain Chandimal lost his in the pavilion.
Lakmal stood out for the visitors without an ounce of doubt. But what would worry them would be the other end. Lahiru Gamage kept bowling his natural lengths — hitting the deck hard — instead of bowling full early on and was expensive. Shanaka’s pace, or the lack of it, allowed the Indian batsmen easy opportunities to change gears because of which Sri Lanka would definitely look at other pace options in the Nagpur Test.
Angelo Mathews and Lahiru Thirimanne both played matured knocks but failed to convert them into centuries. Daddy hundreds are necessary if Sri Lanka are to spring a surprise and the likes of Chandimal, Mathews or Karunaratne are capable of doing so. Sadeera Samarawickrama also showed the potential of playing momentum changing innings and will look to emulate the same performance.
Nagpur and pitches share an infamous past. They produced a green top in 2004 as Australia annihilated India by 342 runs. More recently, the International Cricket Council (ICC) gave them a poor rating for preparing a rank turner for the 2015 clash against South Africa and were also criticised for India’s loss to New Zealand in the 2016 World T20 opener. Given their history and if a couple of reports are to be believed, we may see a traditional Indian track which would bring spinners into action in the second essays of the Test. However the role of pacers would be vital in the first half.
Sri Lanka came close to registering their first win on Indian shores. Given India’s quest of challenging themselves ahead of the overseas leg and the atypical nature of the 22 yards, Chandimal’s men would pose a challenge to the hosts. Kolkata played its part, it's over to you Nagpur.
India probable XI: Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Ravichandran Ashwin, Wriddhiman Saha, Ravindra Jadeja/Kuldeep Yadav, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma
Sri Lanka probable XI: Dimuth Karunaratne, Sadeera Samarawickrama, Lahiru Thirimanne, Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal, Niroshan Dickwella, Dasun Shanaka, Dilruwan Perera, Rangana Herath, Suranga Lakmal, Vishwa Fernando