Galle: Virat Kohli’s aggressive strategy to deploy five specialist bowlers will be tested when India go into the three-match cricket Test series against Sri Lanka here tomorrow, hoping to end a 22-year-old wait for a series triumph on Lankan soil.
While the baton had passed on to him from Mahendra Singh Dhoni in Sydney, this is Kohli’s first full assignment in- charge after the one-off-Test in Bangladesh. Kohli has already promised to provide an aggressive brand of leadership and go into Test matches with five bowlers in a bid to take 20 wickets. His journey as Test skipper had begun in Adelaide where he stood-in for Dhoni on account of injury, and led India valiantly to a 48-run loss, despite two sterling hundreds in both innings.
In Sydney, he was defiant in the mannerism of his team selection, chopping and changing a side worn down by poor form, injury and fatigue. At Fatullah, he persisted with the five-bowler theory, and also brought back a Test stalwart — Harbhajan Singh — back to the side. If pre-series warm-up and practice sessions are anything to go by, in summation, all of the above points will continue to feature in Kohli’s strategy in this series as well.
With Murali Vijay ruled out of the first Test owing to a troublesome right hamstring since the Zimbabwe tour, Kohli will have his task cut out to bring in the young Lokesh Rahul into the playing eleven. It is after the opening slots that things get interesting, primarily owing to form, but the team management is expected to follow a set template. At present, among the batsmen, only Ajinkya Rahane is untouchable and he fits in easily at number five. Rohit Sharma, Kohli himself and Wriddhiman Saha were off colour in the practice match.
It is a tad too early to deem them out of touch, given that they had all experienced some time off. Yet, their run-scoring patterns, since the Australian tour, have been indifferent. Kohli was immaculate in the Test series Down Under, with four hundreds in as many matches. Since then, his limted-overs’ form tailed off, despite starting the World Cup with a hundred against Pakistan. He didn’t reach double digits in four ODIs prior to that match, and in ten matches afterwards, his highest score is 46. As an individual batsman, the skipper is a big-game player, and he will feed off the energetic experience of leading the side.
In the absence of a head coach, Kohli is always seen supervising the practice drills under the watchful eyes of team director Ravi Shastri, a sign of his involvement with the young team. But the overdependance on Kohli in the middle-order is an area of concern for the visiting side. Rohit Sharma’s lack of consistency is also a worrisome part in the line-up, especially with a player like Cheteshwar Pujara set to warm the bench. The Indian think-tank, as Kohli had indicated, will opt for a five-bowler theory in a bid to take 20 opposition wickets. But with the weather forecast of persistent cloud cover and rain throughout the week, it is expected that three spinners will not be picked in the eleven. Amit Mishra has only had a light workout since landing in Lanka.
Despite the pitch showing signs of dryness while it was out for a little while in the sun on Monday, three pacers look to be the way forward. Kohli banks on pace, so both Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron should be lining up alongside Ishant Sharma. Shastri too expressed his confidence in the pairing of Ravichandran Ashwin and Harbhajan Singh, sorting up India’s lower-order. As such, this team will be looking to win a first Test series on Lankan soil since 1993 when Mohammad Azharuddin led India to a 1-0 victory. Standing in their way will be Kumar Sangakkara as he looks to bid farewell to Test cricket, retiring after the second Test in Colombo.
There is an air of expectancy about the series, more in hope that a young Lankan team will rise to the occasion and send off arguably their greatest batsman in style. Sri Lanka will be under pressure after their 2-1 series loss to Pakistan preceding this contest, but their preparation has been far from optimal. There was some chopping and changing during the Pakistan series, and some more names have been moved around this time as well, primarily in the bowling department owing to injuries. Shaminda Eranga and Suranga Lakmal are missing, while Dushmantha Chameera’s fitness will be under scrutiny too.
It will leave Dhammika Prasad to lead the attack, with uncapped Vishwa Fernando coming into the equation. The left-arm pacer featured in the three-day practice match and gave a good account of his ability with the new ball taking 2-17 in the second innings. Rangana Herath, Dilruwan Perera and Tharindu Kaushal will handle the spin department, but it is the batting that holds a major worry for skipper Angelo Mathews. Kithuruwan Vithanage has been dropped from the side, but Lahiru Thirimanne has been retained despite scores of 5 and 18 in the practice match. Kusal Perera and Upul Tharanga also played in that game, with the latter scoring a confidence building half-century in the second innings.
Most heartening perhaps was the 160-odd ball unbeaten essay from opener Kaushal Silva. Any sizeable contribution from these young/inexperienced batsmen will help lift the burden off Mathews and Sangakkara. The 37-year-old veteran seemed in a relaxed mood ahead of the series, indulging with his teammates in pre-practice football with enthusiasm. Indeed, every day is just another in the office for the legendary batsman, atleast not until the final day of the second Test. But he will be hoping to leave Lankan cricket in good hands, and defying the Indian team one last time.
India: Virat Kohli (c), Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha, R Ashwin, Harbhajan Singh, Amit Mishra, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron.
Sri Lanka: Angelo Mathews (c), Lahiru Thirimanne, Kaushal Silva, Dimuth Karunaratne, Kumar Sangakkara, Dinesh Chandimal, Upul Tharanga, Jehan Mubarak, Kusal Perera, Rangana Herath, Dilruwan Perera, Tharindu Kaushal, Nuwan Pradeep, Dhammika Prasad, Vishwa Fernando, Dushmantha Chameera (subject to fitness).
Match starts at: 10am IST.