x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Uphill task for India's boys

The tourists may be No 1 Test side but they don't have bowlers to win the upcoming series against Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka Board XI's Ajantha Mendis, third from left, celebrates after the dismissal of India's Sachin Tendulkar on day two of a three-day practice match in Colombo yesterday. The off-spinner, however, has not been selected to play in the first Test at Galle.
Sri Lanka Board XI's Ajantha Mendis, third from left, celebrates after the dismissal of India's Sachin Tendulkar on day two of a three-day practice match in Colombo yesterday. The off-spinner, however, has not been selected to play in the first Test at Galle.

The sixth of Sachin Tendulkar's 47 Test match centuries will, you suspect, not live long in the memory of the Mumbai maestro. It came in the second innings against Sri Lanka in July 1993 at the Sinhalese Sports Club. Batting at No 4, a 20-year-old Tendulkar made 104 off 161 deliveries as India set the hosts 471 for victory. It was one of the least taxing of his three-figure efforts; an attack of Pramodya Wickramasinghe, Dulip Liyanage, Jayananda Warnaweera and Ruwan Kalpage hardly provided a searching examination of his well-grooved technique. Tendulkar has subsequently cemented his place in the greats of the game but he has yet to taste a Test series win on Sri Lankan soil since.

In 2001 and 2008, they fought back after losing the opening Test, but were then swept aside in the series deciders. Sri Lanka's batsmen have been relentlessly consistent and their bowlers more savvy, in conditions that they know intimately as a result of there being few Test venues on the island. The series that starts in Galle on Sunday will be the third between the two countries in two years. India will not have to face Ajantha Mendis, who tormented them to the tune of 26 wickets in 2008, but bowling woes of their own mean that taking 20 Sri Lanka wickets to win a game appears to be well beyond them.

The loss of Zaheer Khan to a shoulder injury after India's Asia Cup win last month is a bitter blow, and the pain has been exacerbated by knee-ligament damage that has forced Shanthakumaran Sreesanth to return home. He may be something of a firebrand but, when on top of his game, Sreesanth is a match-winner. Sri Lanka discovered that when some splendid spells of reverse swing bowling proved decisive in the Kanpur Test last November that led to a series win that catapulted India to the top of the rankings.

Those that will step into the breach left by Zaheer and Sreesanth hardly inspires confidence. There was a time when Munaf Patel, from little-known Ikhar in Gujarat, was India's great pace-bowling hope, sending down 145kph yorkers as England were routed at Mohali in March 2006. A series of injuries, poor fitness and loss of pace saw him fade. The latest spate of injuries have left the selectors with little option but to recall him.

Ishant Sharma too burst on the scene with rave reviews. Months after troubling Ricky Ponting in Perth, a wonderful late-afternoon burst in the shadow of Galle Forte in 2008 was instrumental in the push for victory on a pitch that gave the slow bowlers joy. Since then, Ishant has lost pace and had problems with his wrist position. There is little scope for encouragement in the spin department either. Harbhajan Singh's 23 wickets in Sri Lanka have cost him 37 apiece, though he will take heart from a 10-wicket haul in his last Galle outing. Pragyan Ojha took five wickets in the tour game against the Board President's XI, but those came only after the top order had launched a withering assault, taking him for nearly a run a ball.

Sri Lanka have far less to ponder. In addition to Mendis, who took six for 67 to remind the selectors of his qualities, they have left out Upul Tharanga, who sent India on a leather-hunt on the opening day of the tour game. The return of Lasith Malinga provides potency to an otherwise modest pace attack, while much will be expected from Muttiah Muralitharan as he prepares for one final appearance in whites.

The biggest obstacle in India's path, though, is Mahela Jayawardene, who averages 82.55 at Galle and has five centuries from his 15 Tests there. For India to have any chance of reprising that series win of 1993, they will need similar numbers from Sehwag. It is Virender Sehwag's swashbuckling hundreds that have been the common factor in each of India's last three Test wins against Sri Lanka. If Sehwag is not at his best then the visitors' look to have their work cut out. @Email:sports@thenational.ae