It is obvious from India’s insistence on a grassy pitch for the series opener against Sri Lanka at Eden Gardens in Kolkata that they are working themselves into a lather over the upcoming series against South Africa.
Conditions at the Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium in Jamtha, Nagpur ahead of the second Test, starting on Friday (November 24), only reiterated this commitment to preparing in haste for overseas challenges that await them. There’s plenty of grass on the strip, but it will not be as damp and entertaining as the pitch in Kolkata, not nearly.
India: M Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (capt), Ajinkya Rahane, R Ashwin, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Ravindra Jadeja, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma.
Sri Lanka: Dimuth Karunaratne, Sadeera Samarawickrama, Lahiru Thirimanne, Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal (capt), Niroshan Dickwella (wk), Dasun Shanaka, Dilruwan Perera, Rangana Herath, Suranga Lakmal, Lahiru Gamage/ Vishwa Fernando.
“We get only two days before we fly to South Africa after this series gets over,” said Virat Kohli, the Indian skipper, in the pre-match press conference. “We have no choice but to be in game situation and think of what’s coming ahead of us. Had we got a month off ideally, we would have done a proper preparation in a camp sort of scenario but we have to sort of make do with what we have. We want to embrace being in difficult conditions.”
While it may sound logical to make it harder for themselves and “embrace the challenge” against their immediate opponents, India put themselves in a precarious position in the opener when they faltered in the first innings, stumbling to 172 all out, with Suranga Lakmal breathing fire.
They recovered well to come within three wickets of picking up a win anyway, but the No. 1 ranked side in the world will not be too happy having spent a large portion of a Test on their backs. Certainly not against an opponent they notched a 9-0 series win across all formats in their backyard only a few months ago.
Not only would Kohli and Co like to address the issue of the top-order giving wickets away cheaply, a disciplined fielding display too would be high on the agenda when they set foot in Jamtha.
With Lakmal running riot in overcast conditions, which by the way saw the first two days get under 50 overs of play, India were in dire straits until Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami came to the party. India’s batters showed considerable poise when the pitch dried up in time for their second innings with Kohli smashing a brilliant century. But if it wasn’t for Bhuvneshwar and Shami’s stunning effort on a significantly flatter surface in the second innings, they would not have reduced Sri Lanka to 75 for 7 to gain a mental edge coming into the second Test.
Bhuvneshwar, who finished the game with eight wickets, has been released from the squad due to personal reasons and has been replaced by Vijay Shankar. Though Kohli had plenty of praise for the Tamil Nadu allrounder, it’s unlikely that he will feature in this Test. Instead, Ishant Sharma will complete the pace unit, along with Umesh Yadav and Shami. Shikhar Dhawan, the opener, too has been released and will be replaced by M Vijay to open alongside KL Rahul.
India may play three pacemen and two spinners, a combination they are likely to stick with in South Africa. Although Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin didn’t have big roles to play in the opening Test — it’s possible that the trend will continue — the duo has more than just its precise bowling to offer.
As for Sri Lanka, Lakmal, who spent a considerable amount of time clutching his right leg in the opening Test, may make way for Vishwa Fernando, the left-arm paceman, if he isn’t fully fit. If Sri Lanka are lucky enough to enjoy Lakmal’s services for another Test though, Lahiru Gamage, who was not at his effective best in Kolkata, could be replaced by Fernando. Dasun Shanaka will be the team’s third paceman. As for the spin unit, Sri Lanka will rely on Rangana Herath and Dilruwan Perera.
Sri Lanka’s biggest concern, however, will be their shaky batting line-up. Too many of their batsmen mistook risky aggression for positive batting and ended up losing their wickets. In fact, if it was not for Herath’s 67, they wouldn’t have put up 294 in the first innings. In the second innings, they fared worse and were staring down the barrel only to be saved by bad light. Niroshan Dickwella’s time-wasting tactics did bear fruit in the end!
“I was taking my time while I was batting and Shami was rushing to bowl and that didn’t go down too well with the Indians. I was so happy to be in that situation,” said Dickwella after the game. “The captain was on the other side and was guiding me asking me to be calm and play the normal game and they will get frustrated. I always look to put the pressure back on the opposition. That was a good chance to kill some time as well. I guess they lost about two or three overs.”
Dinesh Chandimal, the Sri Lankan skipper, has plenty to ponder over, including his batting form and how the Indians are going to come at his 24-year-old wicketkeeper, but the first Test would have raised his belief in this team significantly.
That belief will be put the test because India do not take being embarrassed – even if only for an innings – lightly.