Rejoice, folks. It’s time for India versus Sri Lanka again.
With painful memories of a 9-0 whitewash across formats fresh in the minds of Sri Lankan cricketers and fans (arguably a large percentage of India fans too), the islanders are back in India for another full series. Three Tests, three ODIs and three T20Is.
The talk, naturally, has been about the frequency with which these neighbouring countries take on each other. The numbers don’t lie. Since the start of 2007, India and Sri Lanka have faced each other 91 times across formats, with India winning 57 of those matches. That is the most-played rivalry (a loosely-used term, of course) with the famed England-Australia match-up occurring 89 times in that duration. In the last decade, India have faced Sri Lanka 65 times in ODIs, 20 more than their next most frequent match-up with Australia.
Keeping aside the frequency and lopsidedness of India vs Sri Lanka, when the first Test match begins in Kolkata on Thursday, India have a job in hand – to play like the No 1 ranked side in Tests. Just as they did in Sri Lanka, Virat Kohli and Co will look to remain ruthless – a trait the Indian captain wants to see in his side.
Sri Lanka, on the other hand, have the weight of not just an abysmal 2017 hanging on their shoulders, but that of their entire history of playing Test cricket in India. A record that Kumar Sangakkara once said was one of his biggest regrets in cricket.
Played 17. Won 0.
Having never won a Test in India, it would be the understatement of the year to say that the task facing Dinesh Chandimal’s side is daunting. But, despite their shambolic 2017 where they have lost 34 of the 48 matches played across formats, they come in to this series on the back of a 2-0 win against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates. The two-match tussle, that made Sri Lanka the only team to record a series win Pakistan on their adopted home soil, would give them a boost undoubtedly in what would be similar conditions.
Challenges for India
All said and done, India start overwhelming favourites for the series. And Kohli’s task at hand – no disrespect to Sri Lanka – is to make sure his team shun complacency and play their best cricket. And that’s not without challenges as well.
Murali Vijay and KL Rahul, on paper, are still India’s best opening partnership for Tests but the duo have had a roller-coaster ride since last playing for India. While Vijay missed the Sri Lanka series due to injury, Rahul – once seen as a three-format player – was ear-marked for Tests after not grabbing the opportunities that came his way in India’s muddled middle order in ODIs. Vijay, since his return from injury, has had a hit-and-miss run in the Ranji Trophy, but found form with a knock of 140 against Odisha in the last match. As did Rahul, with his 92 in the second innings against Delhi. The Sri Lanka series offers them a chance to cement their place at the top of the order.
The spin twins of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja are also making a comeback to the Indian side after an exile from the limited overs formats. What started as a supposed ‘rest’ period for the duo, became more of a just-stick-to-Tests move from the selectors. Now that they are making a comeback, after a so-so run in the Ranji Trophy season, eyeballs will be trained on the pair. They would be expected to hit the ground running and prove that they still are India’s best spinners in the longest format.
The same, almost, holds true for Mohammad Shami and Umesh Yadav as well. In the one match the two of them played together in the ODI series against Australia, it was evident that they do not possess what it takes to dislodge Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah in the shorter formats. But Shami and Yadav’s form with the red ball played a big role in India reaching the top of the Test rankings and with the South Africa series looming, their form and fitness will feature very highly on Kohli’s list of concerns.
Which brings us nicely to...
The shadow of the South Africa series
Without a ball being bowled against Sri Lanka, much of the talk has already been about preparing for what is undoubtedly Kohli’s most difficult assignment till date – a full tour to South Africa. The pitch in Eden Gardens? Will be prepared with South Africa in mind. The squad composition? South Africa series might play a role. Jasprit Bumrah for the third Test? He could be crucial in South Africa.
While planning ahead is fine, Kohli would do well to make sure his team remain in the present. The best Test sides don’t let complacency become a factor, irrespective of the quality (or lack thereof) of the opponent, and this Indian team sure has the makings to be be one.
Vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane, to that extent, said the right things ahead of the first Test.
“For us each and every match and series is important before going to South Africa. We will think of South Africa when we go there. Right now we are focusing on this series. South Africa will be completely different. Even for Sri Lanka this is a very important series and they are preparing really well. We don’t want to take them lightly. We respect Sri Lanka and we just want to play our game, focus on our strengths rather than thinking about their combination or their strategies,” he said.
For India to win the series, the tougher opponent, arguably, is themselves more than the visiting Sri Lankans. South Africa can wait.