India and Sri Lanka have a remarkable cricketing history. The highest Test team score in the history of cricket was made in a Sri Lanka-India match when Lanka made 952/6 dec. Competition between the two sides reached a zenith when the teams played out an intense final in the 2011 World Cup at the Wankhede in Mumbai. Three years later, Sri Lanka had their revenge when they beat India in the finals of the 2014 World T20 in Bangladesh.
As India embark on another journey to the Island Nation, the sides stand in two halves of ICC rankings. Some deplorable performances since the retirement of their stalwart cricketers have seen Sri Lanka slide to no.7 while India have played some outstanding Test cricket over the past couple of years to be the no.1 side.
Rankings are not a real reflection of the ability in both teams and the contests are expected to be closer than expected between a no.7 and no.1 side. With the first Test starting on Wednesday, we take a look at five key players for the series.
1. Asela Gunaratne
Sri Lanka’s new-found all-rounder, Asela Gunaratne, has been a revelation in recent months. Aside from compiling several match winning knocks in limited-overs cricket, Gunaratne has taken to Test cricket like fish to water and played a critical role in Sri Lanka chasing down 388 against Zimbabwe last week.
A calm demeanour outside, Gunaratne is a fighter and possesses a natural game with sturdy defences and attractive strokes. Much akin to Mathews, Gunaratne prefers to put team first and more often than not has been the last man standing in Lanka’s agonising losses in the past few months.
He played an instrumental role in Sri Lanka’s upset win over India in the Champions Trophy and will be keenly watched in the upcoming Test series. He is yet to face quality bowlers in his Test career and the likes of Ashwin and Jadeja could pose tough questions.
2. Ravichandran Ashwin
The no.3 ranked Test bowler, Ravichandran Ashwin has enjoyed a wonderful period in Test cricket with India playing quite a lot of home Tests. Although an overseas tour, Sri Lanka present conditions very similar to that in India and Ashwin will once again be a central figure in the Indian side.
Sri Lanka have a few left handers in the top order and Ashwin’s off-breaks and arm balls would present a stern test to a young batting line-up. A dull Champions Trophy followed by an average limited-overs series in West Indies has pegged back Ashwin but a Test series on dry, dusty tracks is all he needs to come back to form.
3. Hardik Pandya
The hard-hitting all-rounder stunned many with his skills in the Champions Trophy and has already evoked comparisons with Ben Stokes in his short career thus far. Pandya, inspite of being with the team in the past two Test series’, is yet to be given a debut and all signs point towards a change in that trend in Sri Lanka unless the pitch screams for three spinners.
Kohli and Shastri are known to favour a five-bowler strategy in Tests and this could aid Hardik Pandya. Although he is touted as a pace bowling all-rounder to watch out for, it remains to be seen how effective he is in Test cricket. Not since Irfan Pathan has an Indian all-rounder generated so much buzz in the early stages of his career and the Baroda man would be itching to don the whites.
4. Rangana Herath
The old Lankan warrior, Rangana Herath, is a beast on home pitches and proved as much in the recent Test against Zimbabwe apart from decimating Australia with his wily skills last year. In spite of ageing, Herath has a cool head on his shoulders and skilled enough to tackle any quality batsmen.
Having taken over the mantle of Sri Lanka’s spinning duties from Muttaih Muralitharan, Herath has gone about his business in an unassuming and calm manner. With Chandimal ruled out due to injury, Herath will also lead the side in the first Test at Galle. Indians have been susceptible to spin bowling in the past few years and Nathan Lyon and Steven O’Keefe exploited it to perfection during Australia’s tour of India.
If the skills exhibited by Indian batsmen against spinners in that series is anything to go by, the Herath-threat will be huge for the visitors. If Sri Lanka have any hope of putting it last India, Herath will have to step up to the occasion.
5. Virat Kohli
The controversial Indian skipper has hogged headlines in the past month with his suspected role in former Indian player Anil Kumble stepping down as national coach. With Ravi Shastri, one of Kohli’s favorites, joining as Indian coach, the onus will be on the Indian captain to prove that the choice was a right one for the team.
Kohli had looked out of sorts against Australian spinners and the likes of Dilruwan Perera and Rangana Herath would have watched those videos umpteen times. The young, brash skipper needs to step up and quickly. He has lost quite a bit of respect in the country after the Kumble-saga and a poor show in Lanka would not go down well with the fans. Being favorites is no easy task as India found out in the Champions Trophy and this series is another litmus test of India’s status as no.1 in Test cricket.