No sooner had the Indians officially cancelled their scheduled afternoon practice session at the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium on Friday (August 11) owing to rain, than the sun broke out in all its splendour, subjecting the venue of the third Sri Lanka-India Test to a drenching of a different kind.
The interplay between the sun and the rain has been a conspicuous feature over the last three days, since the teams arrived here with different thoughts on their mind. Virat Kohli’s intrepid side, determined to chart its own destiny, is one win away from its first sweep overseas in a series involving more than two Tests. Dinesh Chandimal’s boys, handicapped by injuries to key players, are desperate to avoid that same result, their desperation revolving more around hope than conviction.
This is a reasonably new Test venue that has hosted only five Tests previously, of which the first three ended in draws. Sri Lanka had the mortification of seeing Pakistan chase down a mammoth 377 with remarkable ease in July 2015, but its most recent memories of playing at this ground are nothing but pleasant and invigorating.
Shot out for 117 on the opening day of a three-Test series by Australia in July last year and conceding an 86-run deficit, Sri Lanka staged a stirring fightback on the back of Kusal Mendis’s epic 176 to conjure a 106-run win. It was to set the tone for a series of total domination thereafter by the home side, which pummelled Australia, then the No. 1-ranked Test side, 3-0. For inspiration and feel-good, memories of those five days should come in hugely handy; beyond that though, that result will count for nothing at all because the tide has altered almost irreversibly.
The cancellation of its practice session means India would have had just one stint at the nets between the end of the second Test, on Sunday at the SSC ground, and the start of the final Test, on Saturday. That may not be the worst possible outcome, given how much cricket the Indians are coming off and how much limited-overs cricket lies ahead of them in the next two and a half months. There is little scope for any rust to creep into their cricketing mindscape, and even though they haven’t been able to top up their skill-sets, they have continued to work at the gym and in the pool in their hotel.
It is India’s mindset, as much as its skill levels, that Sri Lanka will be supremely wary of. India has found itself in a dead-rubber scenario enough times in the last couple of years, but has strongly resisted whatever temptation there might have been to take its foot off the pedal. Quality outfits aspiring to rule the world with an iron fist don’t experience emotions such as sympathy; they transform into champion teams because of their ruthlessness and a winning mentality, because winning is as much of a habit as anything else. If Sri Lanka is hoping for freebies over the next five days, it will be in for a rude shock.
That India has managed to stack up the kind of results it has without being in a position to put out the same XI for two consecutive Tests for the last two years and a bit now is a tribute to its bench strength. There is a culture of continuity in thinking which means that even if a new bloke comes in, he knows exactly what to do and how to fit in seamlessly. And there will be at least one new bloke coming in for this Test match, what with Ravindra Jadeja suspended for one game for breach of the ICC’s Code of Conduct.
In all likelihood, that should be Kuldeep Yadav ,the 22-year-old left-arm wrist spinner primed for a second Test appearance, though it will also depend on what approach India takes into the game. On Friday morning, the Pallekele strip was almost indistinguishable from the lush-green square, suggesting that, without Rangana Herath, Sri Lanka would place all its optimism eggs in the pace-bowling basket. However, once Sanath Jayasuriya, the chairman of selectors, wended his way to the middle for a chat with Godfrey Dabare, the curator, and triggered a flurry of activity, things began to unravel drastically.
First came out the bristled mop-brooms that were used to scrape the top and get residual moisture out. Then arrived the mower which, having flirted with the edges of the strip, finally moved to the business part and sheared a fair amount of grass off the surface. By the time the mower had done its deed for the day, plenty of the green had disappeared but there was still enough grass on the pitch for this not to appear as barren as the one at the SSC ground had on match-morning.
India’s last sighter of the surface was on Wednesday afternoon, but it is likely that it would have already pencilled in its 12 for the game. Whether it feels the need for game-time for someone like Ishant Sharma and/or Bhuvneshwar Kumar with the limited-overs legs imminent will dictate the composition of the pace attack that has hitherto been manned by Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav with Hardik Pandya an admirable, influential third cog.
Sri Lanka will make two forced changes following the injury-driven unavailability of Nuwan Pradeep, its pace spearhead, and Herath, the prolific left-arm spinner. The greenhorn attack – which is what it will be, no matter who makes up the bowling unit – will have its work cut out against a batting line-up that has topped 600 six times in its last nine Tests.
In an acknowledgement of the thinness of its bowling resources, Sri Lanka is set to bolster that department by leaving out a batsman, most likely Dhananjaya de Silva, and playing five full bowlers.
Lahiru Kumara is likely to be assisted in new-ball duties by Vishwa Fernando, the left-arm quick whose only Test was against Australia last year. In case Sri Lanka goes with a third quick, that could mean a debut for Lahiru Gamage. Lakshan Sandakan, the chinaman bowler, is only expected to figure in the XI if Chandimal opts for additional spin support to Dilruwan Perera and Malinda Pushpakumara.
India hasn't played a Test in Pallekele before but that should be no deterrent to a team that has chosen to chart its own path to glory.
Nestled in the foothills of the Hunnasgiriya Mountain range and surrounded by thick, verdant foliage, the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium is as inspiring a ground as any other. What fire it stokes in the 22 chosen individuals over the next five days will decide if the one-way traffic continues or if Sri Lanka, emboldened by the positive approach with the bat in the second innings of the second Test, can bring some pride back into its cricket.
Sri Lanka: Dinesh Chandimal (capt), Upul Tharanga, Dimuth Karunaratne, Kusal Mendis, Angelo Mathews, Dhananjaya de Silva, Niroshan Dickwella (wk), Dilruwan Perera, Malinda Pushpakumara, Lahiru Kumara, Vishwa Fernando, Lakshan Sandakan, Lahiru Gamage.
India: KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (capt), Ajinkya Rahane, R Ashwin, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Hardik Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Kuldeep Yadav, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Abhinav Mukund, Rohit Sharma, Axar Patel.