A host side, who by the admission of their own captain, have "forgotten the winning formula". A visiting team that have not only made winning a habit, but have done it with clinical efficiency. A host side left licking their wounds and ruminating about their glorious past. A visiting team that are on an unstoppable run, scaling newer heights everyday, under a gladiator of a leader. A host side that have looked listless and hapless. A visiting team that have been rampant and ruthless. That really has been the story of India's tour of Sri Lanka over the past month or so. The Sri Lankans have been thoroughly battered and bruised, first in the Test series and then in the ODI series, and there is nothing to suggest that it could be otherwise in the remainder of the matches.
So as the caravan moves to the iconic R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo, for the last two matches of the ODI series and the one-off T20, there is only one team that one can put his money on, and that is India.
Such has been the gulf between the two sides that Virat Kohli and Co have sauntered to one victory after another, while almost looking bored by the lack of competition. The best part about this Indian side under Kohli, however, has been that they have dug deep into their reserves and found enough wherewithal to carry them across the line when, on a few rare occasions, the going got a little tough. The hosts, on the other hand, blew a golden opportunity to get on the scoresheet, when the crafty young spinner Akila Dananjaya stupefied the 'best players of spin' with his wizardry.
They let the visitors wriggle out of a precarious 131/7, still more than a 100 runs adrift, and failed to kill the competition off. They had a half chance in the third ODI too, when India were reduced to 61/4 in the 16th over, chasing 218 for victory, but Sri Lanka failed again to strike when the iron was red.
The result: India have won the series with two matches to go, winning their fourth ODI series in the Emerald Isle since being whitewashed by a crack Sri Lankan team — the reigning world champions — in 1997. There's not much to achieve for India now in the series really, other than perhaps testing out the reserve bench, consistent with the team management's stated policy of rotating the players in preparation for the 2019 World Cup. But while India would be looking to experiment in order to find the best fit for the World Cup, a place in the World Cup itself is not yet guaranteed for the Sri Lankans. While India boast of a surfeit of resources bursting at the seams, Sri Lanka are facing an acute quailty crisis and not helped one bit by the loss of key players to injury and suspension. Such has been the difference in fortunes of the two sides.
The hosts can't afford the luxury of experimenting and would simply have to go all-out for winning the two remaining ODIs, if they are to qualify directly for the World Cup. Losing even one, would introduce complex permutations and combinations, inestimably queering the pitch for them, as far as automatic qualification for the World Cup is concerned. If Sri Lanka lose both the remaining ODIs against India, they would have to hope that a resurgent West Indies do not win more than three of their five ODIs against England, and also not lose their one-off match to Ireland.
If Sri Lanka manage to win one of the matches against India, they would hope West Indies don't win all their six upcoming ODIs. It is an incredibly tall ask for Sri Lanka, from whichever angle you look at it, exacerbated by the fact that West Indies would be buoyed by the return of Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels, and India, even after resting several key players, possess too much of firepower and too strong a resolve to be got the better of.
When Sri Lanka had beaten India in the Champions Trophy a few months back, it was their batsmen who recovered the territory ceded by their bowlers and carried the day for the islanders. The Sri Lankans, in the current series, have looked to be somehow hauling their bodies to the ground, with the belief that defeat is 'inevitable', and going through their motions. There has been no energy, no incisiveness. So the fact that Sri Lanka are in a mess is also to do with the mindset as much as the quality of cricket being played and the thin resources.
"There are no outside problems. But I think that the winning formula has been forgotten," stand-in skipper Chamara Kapugedara said on Sunday after India took an unassailable 3-0 lead with a six-wicket victory in the third ODI.
"I have seen that happen to many teams. When a team is losing, even if they get close to win, they just can't go beyond that hurdle. So we have lost that winning formula. But we'll have to win just one match and go from there," he said.
The problem for Sri Lanka is compounded by the fact that Kapugedera himself is set to miss the fourth ODI, having aggravated his back injury. Dinesh Chandimal, too, is ruled out of the series with injury, while Danushka Gunathilaka is out for 10 days after hurting himself while fielding in the third ODI at Pallekele. Regular limited-overs skipper and reliable batsman Upul Tharanga continues to serve a suspension and will not be available before the last ODI. Kusal Perera and Asela Gunaratne have earlier been ruled out of the series as well.
In such a scenario, a massive load falls on the shoulders of Lasith Malinga, who would don the captain's hat. One of the most influential limited-overs bowlers of all time, Malinga, has looked way past his prime in this series, and will have to pick not only his game now, with this added responsibility, but rally his troops for a mighty charge.
What would be India's strategy? As discussed earlier, there is not much to gain for Kohli and his boys than some valuable practice and preparation for the World Cup. The middle order didn't get a run in the middle owing to Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli's dominance as India cantered past the 217-run target at the loss of just a wicket.
The second ODI was a chance for some testing in the batting order. Accordingly, KL Rahul was pushed to the No 3 slot, while Kohli dropped to No 5. Kedar Jadhav was promoted to No 4. The experiment did not pay off as the three of them could only contribute a total of nine runs. It took the ageless Mahendra Singh Dhoni and a fiesty Bhuvneshwar Kumar to deny the hosts what looked like a certain victory. The experimentation was aimed at finding out if individuals who have been playing a certain role can take up different roles if the need arise, before the more conventional batting order was resorted to in the next match.
Dhoni proved in the third ODI again that he is still irreplaceable and worth his weight in gold as a finisher and rescuer when the team runs into trouble. For all the doubts over his candidature for the World Cup, and the announcements of him not being an automatic choice, one daresay, the Indian selectors still can't afford to leave him out of the squad. It will also not be advisable to tinker with the opening pair, especially when both Dhawan and Rohit Sharma have hit a considerable degree of form. Kohli's presence in the starting XI is non-negotiable and it would be nothing short of extraordinary if he sits out in keeping with the rotation policy.
There is a fair chance of Manish Pandey getting a look in. With Yuvraj Singh's fitness under cloud following a failed endurance test at the National Cricket Academy (NCA), it is starting to look increasingly difficult for him to get back into the scheme of things. And Pandey can be a fine replacement. A superb fielder and batsman, he had been in prime form during the India 'A' tour to South Africa. He had shown in the Indian Premier League (IPL) that he can be quite a finisher. His sublime century against Australia in Sydney in early 2016 is still etched in memory. Pandey can be a match-winner at No 4 or 5 and can be slotted into the side for the last two ODIs of this series in place of Rahul or Jadhav, neither of whom has had the greatest times with the bat. There is a case for testing out Ajinkya Rahane too. A player in the Rahul Dravid mode, Rahane can give the batting solidity in the crucial middle overs.
If the Indian think tank is really adventurous, they can test either Rahane or Jadhav is an opening role, though separating the Dhawan-Rohit pair when they are in roaring form may not be advisable, for you need the premier openers of the side to get as many games under their belt as possible.
On the bowling front, India had come to these shores without the frontline pacers Mohammad Shami and Umesh Yadav and the lead spinners Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. Bhuvneshwar, for all his craft and guile and the threat he can potentially be in England, where the World Cup will be staged, is going through a dry spell, having gone five ODIs without a wicket. He may, therefore, be given a break and time to get his house in order, and meanwhile it may be worthwhile to see what young pacer Shardul Thakur brings to the table.
Among the spinners, Axar Patel and Yuzvendra Chahal have made good use of the opportunities that have come their way, but given the variety Kuldeep Yadav offers with his Chinaman style of bowling, he should be an integral part of India's plans for the World Cup. It would make sense to give him some game time too.
The charm of the ODI series between India and Sri Lanka was substantially effaced when India ambled to a victory at Pallekele on Sunday, thereby clinching the series. The fourth ODI is no more than a practice match for the visitors, while it is no less than an ICC tournament knockout for the hosts. For the record, the two teams have played 34 ODIs at the R Premadasa Stadium so far and things have been by and large even stevens, with India winning 13 of those contests and Sri Lanka 15. India, however, possess the two highest team totals at this venue — 363/5 and 332/5 — both against the home team and both in 2009. So the task is cut out for the hosts.