COLOMBO // The cricketing ties between India and Sri Lanka take centrestage even as the island nation being the cynosure of all eyes in South Asia today as the country prepares for the all important SAARC Summit to be held the following week, hosting the regional leaders of the continent.
The security arrangements have been made but the stringent road checks, restrictions and road blocks will not take the spirit of the game away from the cricket frenzy crowd. In fact it would serve as a distraction to the war torn island that still reminisces the Black July holocaust, held as a period of commemoration by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. While the movement of people arriving into Colombo is being strictly monitored, the Indians will be tracking every movement of the finger of Ajantha Mendis' right hand when the first of a three Test series starts today.
The media focus at the Sinhalese Sports Club is on the newest spin sensation Mendis, who ripped through the Indian batting in the Asia Cup final to give his team a thumping 100-run victory. The 23-year-old is set to debut with partner Muttiah Muralitharan, the Test world record-holder, in the absence of the fast bowling trio Lasith Malinga, Dilhara Fernando and Farveez Maharoof, all sidelined because of injuries.
The skipper Mahela Jayawardene, however, played down the media frenzy on Mendis to focus more on his two experienced bowlers Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas. "Ajantha played a fantastic role in the Asia Cup final but he's still young and hasn't played a Test match," said the Sri Lanka captain. "We are going with a plan and hopefully it will work out well for him. "We also have a proud record at home and we'll try to defend it. It's going to be a close series as always. The teams are evenly balanced and it will be a good contest with India's batting having the experience and depth."
The former captain Rahul Dravid, however, cautioned against taking the hosts' depleted attack lightly. "We are not worried about Mendis. It is not about one individual. Sri Lanka have the right balance in their line-up and they manage their players well. A spinner like Muttiah Muralitharan is a top-class performer while Vaas is a clever customer." The India skipper Anil Kumble also felt it was not just Mendis they were concerned but every bowler in the opposing team, particularly the tried and tested Muralitharan and Vaas.
"The two bowlers who have bowled extremely well over the years are Murali and Vaas, and Mendis making his debut can become nervous," said Kumble. The Indian captain admitted the challenge of touring Sri Lanka, and put faith in the composure of the Indian squad. "The pitches have generally favoured the batsmen. We have a lot of knowledge and handy experience and quality, in terms of our combinations," he said. "This [the SSC] is a good track, with plenty of runs in it. We will look at a four-bowler combination and we have capable means of picking up 20 wickets."
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