They were startled, then they were pushed against the wall and finally they were left embarrassed. The past couple of months have not been a good advertisement for Sri Lankan cricket. Zimbabwe humbled them in the ODI series; Niroshan Dickwella and Asela Gunaratne saved the blushes in the one-off Test. If that was not enough, the Indian juggernaut handed the Islanders a comprehensive annihilation to sap them to the core.
Now, barely a few days after the whitewash against India, Sri Lanka, thanks to a ridiculously poor 2017, find themselves in a desperate situation. It began with a 0-5 drubbing against South Africa in South Africa and then Bangladesh managed to draw a three-match ODI series 1-1. If the Sri Lankan Lions are to qualify for the 2019 World Cup directly, irrespective of how the Windies perform in their upcoming ODIs, they have to win at least two out of the five ODIs against India. Given the morale of the team, captain Upul Tharanga has a huge task ahead of not only reassembling a mentally disintegrated unit but also infusing belief into his side, which has not tasted any noteworthy success for a long time.
If there is anything that highlights the gulf between the two Asian nations, it is their immediate objectives. As Sri Lanka eye to refine the basics and regroup, India kick start their expedition of increasing the team's fitness standards and becoming 'the best fielding eleven' ahead of the 2019 World Cup.
Just like the Test series, there is little that suggests that the ODI series would be closely contested. Perhaps, Sri Lanka could bask in their victory against India at the Champions Trophy a couple of months back. But, how much?
Sri Lanka have continued to introduce new names to the squad; a problem which has put them in an interminable transitional phase and not allowed the players to build confidence and gain consistency since the retirement of stalwarts like Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan. Slow left-arm orthodox bowler Malinda Puspakumara and left-arm pacer Vishwa Fernando, both of whom featured in the third Test at Pallekele, have earned call-ups, while all-rounders Milinda Siriwardana and Thisara Perera were recalled to the side after the snub in the Zimbabwe series.
In Gunaratne and Nuwan Pradeep – both of whom are unavailable for the 50-overs assignment – they have lost an excellent lower-middle order batsman and arguably the team's best pacer respectively. Gunaratane's dibbly dobbly slow medium bowling would not be missed much, as former Sri Lanka captain Angelo Mathews is all set to resume bowling after a five-month lay off. But the hosts will surely miss Gunaratne's ability of finishing games — remember his cameo in the Champions Trophy against India? Or the outrageous 46-ball 84 run knock (albeit in a T20I) against Australia in February 2017?
What should be Sri Lanka's game plan then?
Until late 2016, Sri Lanka was one of the few countries that produced ODIs that were not merely a bat versus bat contest. Australia's ODI series against the hosts being a prime example. In the age of short boundaries, two new balls and big bats, bowlers always had something on offer and scores of 250 were par. But more recently, even the Islanders have taken the mainstream route and dished out batting tracks, partly because they needed to adapt to the modern ways of playing ODI cricket.
Acknowledging that change and taking the recent results in Sri Lanka into consideration, the hosts' best bet would be to trust their batting line-up, hope the toss falls in their favour (it didn't in the Test series) and chase down whatever they are asked to. They had exposed the frailties of India's bowling line-up in the Champions Trophy and there is no reason why they cannot repeat that at their own backyard.
As far as the visitors are concerned, they have an embarrassment of riches. So much so that Ajinkya Rahane, who was the Man of the Series in India's last ODI assignment against the Windies, may not feature in the playing eleven. Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan are likely to occupy the opening slots, and KL Rahul, who can play a floating role, has been asked to bat two down for this series.
Despite all the success in Tests, it was widely visible during the England series earlier in January and the Champions Trophy that India need to solve the slow bowling conundrum. Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, both magnificent long format bowlers, have been guilty of not being penetrative in limited overs, which has allowed the opposition to dominate in the middle overs. There were some who also questioned why Kuldeep Yadav didn't fly to England for the quadrennial event in June-July. The logic then could've been down to experience.
But after the loss against Pakistan in the summit clash of the Champions Trophy, the MSK-led selection panel have made bold calls. Right from resting/ dropping (pick whatever you think is apt) Yuvraj Singh to 'rotating' Ashwin, who will play for Worcestershire in the County Championship, and giving rest to Jadeja.
The Indian selectors have followed the present-day notion of picking wrist spinners in Kuldeep and Yuzvendra Chahal, who picked up six wickets in his last outing in India colours. It will be interesting to see whether Virat Kohli fields them both or opts to play Axar Patel, a straight replacement of Jadeja, and is handy with the bat, instead. Either way, the visitors' have wicket-taking options in the middle overs, and if these youngsters shine, it will definitely put pressure on Ashwin and Jadeja.
Indian cricket is going through a golden phase at the moment, when there has been no dearth of pace bowlers. Jasprit Bumrah, though, who is an asset in the T20I format, has to establish himself as a vital cog in the ODI team. His constant overstepping has cost India a few times and he must improve on that aspect. Mumbai's Shardul Thakur has once again been selected in the visitors' squad, courtesy stellar contributions for India A. He was also impressive during the Indian Premier League (IPL). Manish Pandey, too, clawed his way back into the senior side, after a lacklustre series against New Zealand and an untimely injury before the Champions Trophy. Although the Karnataka batsman will have to wait for his chances, Pandey insisted he was happy to be back in the mix.
Focus will, as usual, be also on Mahendra Singh Dhoni. His wicket-keeping has never been under the microscope, but the humongous strikes that made Dhoni what he is have gone missing. With calls emerging from all fronts to introduce young blood (read Rishabh Pant), the former India skipper will have to score big.
The positive for Sri Lanka, though, is that they cannot fall below the level that they find themselves at present. Before the series began, Tharanga pleaded for patience and reminded the fans, "Sri Lanka dominated in all three formats for a good 18 years – don't forget this now when we are going through a rough patch." He asked for time and currently the hosts are in a race against time. For starters, they must win two ODIs as it will provide them satisfaction and comfort in terms of 2019 World Cup qualification and they could start rebuilding in earnest.
Sri Lanka: Upul Tharanga (c), Angelo Mathews, Niroshan Dickwella, Danushka Gunathilaka, Kusal Mendis, Chamara Kapugedera, Milinda Siriwardana, Malinda Pushpakumara, Akila Dananjaya, Lakshan Sandakan, Thisara Perera, Wanindu Hasaranga, Lasith Malinga, Dushmantha Chameera, Vishwa Fernando.
India: Virat Kohli(c), Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma (vc), KL Rahul, Manish Pandey, Ajinkya Rahane, MS Dhoni, Kedar Jadhav, Hardik Pandya, Axar Patel, Yuzvendra Chahal, Shardul Thakur, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Kuldeep Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah.