Sri Lanka can bank on its proud home record, but will be playing its first Test after Kumar Sangakkara’s retirement
Different batsmen use time at the nets differently. For someone, it is about playing freely without the attendant risk, or fear, of being dismissed. For others, the nets offer the perfect simulatory opportunity to replicate a match situation. And then, there are a few others who approach batting in the nets in much the same manner as they would in a game, with the same intensity and focus and purpose.
Virat Kohli belongs to the last category. He let out an angry ‘aaaaaarrhhh’ upon playing a loose drive to Varun Aaron that caught the outside edge and flew towards where the wicketkeeper ought to have been, and for the next few deliveries, batted with a studied deliberateness, his eyes hawk-like on the ball, his feet moving in perfect harmony, his bat coming down ramrod straight, his head as steady as steady can be.
While Kohli the captain is still in his early days, Kohli the batsman is a seasoned product who has tasted individual success in all parts of the world except England. As captain, he can’t afford to be a perfectionist because he is responsible for not just himself but ten other individuals; as batsman, he is nothing if not a perfectionist, driven by a quest for excellence that takes him back to the training ground over and over again.
Kohli the flexible captain and Kohli the perfectionist batsman need to be in ideal sync over the next five days. For the first time since in the West Indies in 2011, India will go into the final Test of an away tour with the genuine possibility of an overseas series victory looming large. India has had the better of the contest across the nine days of Test cricket in this series, but the scoreline still reads 1-1. For the visiting side to translate that into a series triumph against Sri Lanka will require stringing together a second successive away Test victory, something India hasn’t done since January 2010, when it swept a two-match series in Bangladesh.
A relaid strip at the SSC ground, the venue of the last game of this series starting on Friday (August 28), could well be the joker in the pack, but India is learning to try and take the pitch and other variables not in its control out of the equation. The liberal coating of grass that adorned the surface till late on Thursday afternoon might not be around on match morning, but the innate hardness of the track is something that India’s batsmen, as well as pacers and spinners alike, should relish if the surface plays as its appearance would suggest.
While there is strong belief within the Indian ranks that this is the best chance to win a series in Sri Lanka for the first time since 1993, there is no trace of complacency. Whatever overconfidence there might have been in Galle when one poor session undid all the good work of the preceding six sessions has totally disappeared. And because this side isn’t too fussed about history, it won’t worry too much about the fact that India hasn’t come back from 0-1 down to win a three-Test series since that famous showdown of 2001 on home patch against Steve Waugh’s Australians.
India will make two enforced changes, Cheteshwar Pujara returning to the side in the relatively unfamiliar position of opener following the injury to M Vijay, and Naman Ojha taking over the big gloves from Wriddhiman Saha, who has also gone back home, with a hamstring strain. Whether the team opts for Bhuvneshwar Kumar ahead of Stuart Binny will depend almost entirely on what it makes of the conditions in the last few hours leading up to the Test. Bhuvneshwar is the more accomplished bowler while Binny is the better equipped batsman who, however, hardly put a foot wrong – apart literally from when he caught the edge of Kaushal Silva in the first innings at the P Sara Oval, of course – as a bowler in the second Test.
Whereas India has a reasonably good handle on things despite the constant reshuffle necessitated by injuries, Sri Lanka has a more issues to address. Angelo Mathews confirmed the inclusion in the playing XI of Upul Tharanga, but it won’t be easy to fill the massive void following the retirement of Kumar Sangakkara. The veteran left-hand batsman didn’t overfill the runs column, but he always held the threat of uncorking a big one. The same can’t be said of the rest of the batting unit which, Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal excepted, has not found its feet at the Test level consistently yet.
Mathews would ideally love to bat at No. 4, but there is a bit of a crowd at the top given how many of the batsmen like to bat in the top four. Sri Lanka could contemplate giving Kusal Janith Perera a Test debut in place of Jehan Mubarak, and also hand him the ‘keeping gloves to free up Chandimal and facilitate his moving up the order. Elsewhere, Lahiru Thirimanne hasn’t got fully going yet and the openers haven’t fired in tandem. The spin twins of R Ashwin and Amit Mishra have mostly had the better of the lower order.
Mathews could also have to make do without the services of Tharindu Kaushal. The offspinner has been Sri Lanka’s most successful bowler with 12 wickets, but is nursing a badly bruised right thumb after being hit on his hand by Umesh Yadav in Sri Lanka’s second innings at the P Sara. However, the availability again of Nuwan Pradeep must come as a welcome development.
Four of the last five Tests at the SSC have ended indecisively, but the relaid strip and the relative inexperience of both sides indicate that this game will swing one way or the other. But which way will it go? Form and all-round strength says India, a proud home record says Sri Lanka. Something will have to give.
India: Cheteshwar Pujara, KL Rahul, Ajinkya Rahane. Virat Kohli (capt), Rohit Sharma, Naman Ojha (wk), Stuart Binny, R Ashwin, Amit Mishra, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Harbhajan Singh, Varun Aaron, Karun Nair.
Sri Lanka: Kaushal Silva, Dimuth Karunaratne, Lahiru Thirimanne, Upul Tharanga, Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal, Kusal Janith Perera (wk), Dilruwan Perera, Dhammika Prasad, Rangana Herath, Nuwan Pradeep, Tharindu Kaushal, Jehan Mubarak, Dushmantha Chameera, Vishwa Fernando.