July 26-30, 2017
Start time 1000 local (0430GMT)
At a glance, Sri Lanka’s recent home record is not so bad. They have won five of their six most recent Tests on the island and at least three of those victories were comprehensive. The whitewash over Australia, too, remains a source of enduring pride, even though it was achieved close to a year ago. Rangana Herath – the hero of that series – remains undiminished in his 40th year. Kusal Mendis, who produced that pivotal performance, has also since made headway, hitting another mammoth match-winning innings, in Galle, against Bangladesh.
And yet, there is fear in Sri Lanka that this series could go badly. Earlier this year, the hosts were beaten by Bangladesh for the first time ever and, less than two weeks ago, had been pushed by an even lower-ranked Zimbabwe side. How will they compete with India, the top-ranked Test team? How can Sri Lanka beat a side that, almost irrefutably, is fitter, better drilled, more confident and, probably, have comfier seats and softer suspension on their team bus?
Since their arrival on the island, India have even made the kinds of noises that teams, who are runaway favourites, tend to make. While on tougher tours, words like “challenge” and “big effort” dominate the pre-series talk, here, they have spoken of respecting the opposition. They had, after all, won the series in 2015, when the Sri Lanka team seemed to be in much better shape. While for Sri Lanka the two years since have been characterised by resignations, new faces and flux, India have rocked up with a very similar squad. Stability, consistency, and excellence – right now, India represent everything Sri Lanka are not.
Still, strange things happen on the island. No one expected a 3-0 thrashing of Australia last year, and, like a ball leaping out a footmark, that series produced a triumphant surprise for Sri Lanka. Besides, with so many developing players in their XI nothing is ever written in stone for Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka WLWLL (completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Only a year ago Upul Tharanga had been out of all Sri Lanka’s sides, but now, he finds himself not only embedded in them, but saddled with responsibility. That he is an outlandishly talented batsman has never been in doubt, but he has, at times, been wasteful – running down the pitch to play a lazy shot when well set, or fatally failing to ground his bat at the non-striker’s end, such as in his most recent game, against Zimbabwe. Having come into this series on the back of some form, here is Tharanga’s chance to prove he is not a fair-weather batsman – one who only prospers in friendly conditions, or low-pressure match situations. Runs against R Ashwin and co. will be hard-earned.
India are without their first-choice openers in the most difficult country for openers this decade. It is time to rely on Cheteshwar Pujara again. India will need his solidity at the top to settle the team down at the start of the series. From their experience in Galle the last time, India know that things can go wrong quickly in Sri Lanka; Pujara has to be their assurance against that.
Danushka Gunathilaka and Dhananjaya de Silva will fight for the No. 4 spot vacated by the newly appointed Test captain Dinesh Chandimal, who was ruled out of the Test owing to pneumonia. There is, however, a chance Sri Lanka could go into this match with five bowlers, in which case, left-arm spinner Malinda Pushpakumara could pip them both for a debut instead. A fit-again Nuwan Pradeep may enter the XI.
Sri Lanka (possible) 1 Upul Tharanga, 2 Dimuth Karunaratne, 3 Kusal Mendis, 4 Danushka Gunathilaka, 5 Angelo Mathews, 6 Niroshan Dickwella (wk), 7 Asela Gunaratne, 8 Dilruwan Perera, 9 Rangana Herath (capt), 10 Lahiru Kumara, 11 Nuwan Pradeep
Virat Kohli said India were not going to experiment at the top of the order, which means Abhinav Mukund and Shikhar Dhawan should open for India. Kohli also said the pitch looked good for batting, which could tempt India to play only five batsmen and opt for Hardik Pandya as the allrounder. If they do emphasise on security in the first Test of a series, India could go in with Rohit Sharma at No. 6.
India (possible) 1 Abhinav Mukund, 2 Shikhar Dhawan, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli (capt), Ajinkya Rahane, 6 Rohit Sharma/Hardik Pandya, 7 Wriddhiman Saha (wk), 8 R Ashwin, 9 Ravindra Jadeja, 10 Umesh Yadav, 11 Bhuvneshwar Kumar/Mohammed Shami
Pitch and conditions
There was a light covering of grass on the pitch on the eve of the match, but rarely does a Galle surface fail to turn at the back end of a Test. For now, the teams expect the track to be good for batting on the first two days. Afternoon showers are always a threat in the region at this time of year.
Stats and trivia
This will be R Ashwin’s 50th Test match, and his fourth in Sri Lanka.
Rangana Herath will be leading Sri Lanka for fifth time. He has three wins and a loss on his record – all previous matches having been against Zimbabwe or Bangladesh.
There has not been a drawn Test in Sri Lanka for three years. Each of the 16 most-recent matches have yielded results.
“We totally respect the game, we totally how hard we need to work to win every Test match, every situation, every session and every ball is an event for us.” India captain Virat Kohli on maintaining intensity against Sri Lanka
“This looks a good pitch I can’t say whether there is going to be turn early on or not. But on the fourth and fifth days, there will be some assistance for the spinners.”
Rangana Herath on the conditions