Three Tests (Nov 16 to Dec 6), three ODIs (Dec 10 to 17), three T20 Internationals (Dec 20 to 24)
The main picture
Fans all around the world are bound to have stopped looking forward to India vs Sri Lanka cricket ties for a couple of reasons: one is, India have been overwhelmingly dominant against the Lankan Lions in all three formats over the last decade, and secondly, these tours and series have tended to be staged in quick succession and with great regularity. Barely a couple of months after India completed a full tour of Sri Lanka (on September 6), they play host to the Islanders in three Tests, three One-Day Internationals and three T20 Internationals. What needs to be mentioned, though, is Sri Lanka were scheduled to visit India in March next year, according to the Future Tours Programme (FTP). But because they are hosting the Independence Cup in March 2018, their originally-planned visit has been preponed.
Another point worth making is the Lankans last played a Test series in India in 2009/10, though they toured India in 2014 and 2016 for a five-ODI and three-T20I series, respectively.
At the outset, Sri Lanka’s Test series win over Pakistan in the UAE (0-2) has been mentioned as a potential confidence lifter for Dinesh Chandimal and co. ahead of the three-Test series against India. While the Pakistani Test team are also in a transitional phase following the retirements of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, we cannot discredit Sri Lanka for prevailing over the hosts in two thrilling contests. Rangana Herath (16 wickets), Dimuth Karunaratne (306 runs) and captain Chandimal (224 runs) led the way for their team in the UAE.
The big question is, can the Sri Lankans repeat those performances and results against India in India, knowing full well that Virat Kohli and his men have been remarkable in 2017 and unlike the Lankans, have pretty much every base covered?
For starters, this Sri Lankan Test squad isn’t a lot different from the one named for the three Tests against the No. 1 Test side back home in July-August. Nuwan Pradeep and Kusal Mendis are the big names missing from this 15-man team, but Karunaratne (opening batsman), Lakshan Sandakan (left-arm chinaman spinner), Dilruwan Perera (all-rounder), Vishwa Fernando (left-arm medium-pace bowler), and Niroshan Dickwella (wicketkeeper) were among those who produced some good performances over the three-Test series and the limited-overs matches that ensued. And more importantly, this crop of players will now have an idea about Kohli and his men.
The 39-year-old Herath and former captain Angelo Mathews were part of the Sri Lankan team who toured India in 2009/10 and their experience will be counted upon by the rest of their team-mates. Sri Lanka’s batting coach Thilan Samaraweera was a middle-order mainstay at that time too.
While Sri Lanka will have to be good with the bat, ball and on the field, their results on this tour will be shaped by the performances of their batting line-up. Following the retirements of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, their batting has been lightweight across all the three formats. And on this trip, the batsmen collectively have to come good if Sri Lanka are to have any chance of upsetting India. Having said so, their bowling attack, beyond Herath, doesn’t carry ammunition either. And against a strong Indian batting line-up, Sri Lanka’s ability to take 20 wickets will be put to the test.
India themselves have a handful of players returning to the Test side after either injury layoffs or having not been a part of the limited-overs sides. Murali Vijay might walk into bat at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata after having scored a century for Tamil Nadu against Odisha in the Ranji Trophy fifth round, but his last Test came in March this year and he hasn’t played much cricket since as a result of a right-wrist injury. Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja also haven’t played for the national side since the three-Test series against Sri Lanka in their backyard and probably have a point to prove, now that they seem to be out of favour in the ODI and T20 sides. Though India boast the better players, some of their key personnel will be looking to get into their groove and might not hit the ground running come November 16.
While India’s attitude shouldn’t be an issue, we will have to see if facing inferior opposition might get to the Indian players. From Sri Lanka’s point of view, any instance of this should be taken full advantage of.
The pitches for at least two of the three Tests—at the Eden Gardens and in Nagpur—should be good for batting, though the Indian pitches, by nature, aid the spinners from day three onwards. The winning formula in India hasn’t changed over the years, with the preferred option for the captain winning the toss being batting first and aiming to put up 400 runs on the board. Then, with at least two spinners featuring in the playing XI, you have a fair chance of making the advantage of runs on the board and a wearying pitch count.
Sri Lanka have never won a Test match, let alone a series, on Indian soil. So, not only is history against them but they also are facing an Indian side who are literally on top of this world at the moment!
The three-Test series will be followed by three-ODI and three-T20I series. And, if you’re a Sri Lankan fan, you can take heart from the fact that a short series favours the underdog more than the favourite, particularly if the underdog in this case (Sri Lanka) wins the first match. The ODI series gets underway on December 10, by when the focus for Team India might well have shifted to the tour of South Africa at the start of 2018.
We have already heard the selectors say that captain Virat Kohli might be rested for the third Test and the following ODI and T20I series. So, on the whole, India might not be at full strength. Sri Lanka, though, have been woeful in the limited-overs formats in 2017—they have won just nine limited-overs matches (five T20Is and four ODIs) of the 38 played this year—and so, they have a psychological barrier to overcome to even beat an under-strength Indian team.
Sri Lanka have come to India with zero weight of expectations. And, given the state of Sri Lankan cricket on and off the pitch, the lack of expectations has to be looked at as a positive. But to actually make it count, the visitors have to play well for large passages of play and put in team performances. Easier said than done.