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Series with India offers Sri Lanka hope

SUPER SKIPPER: Virat Kohli’s brilliant century in the first Test averted the chance of India’s first home Test defeat to Sri Lanka. (AFP)
BANGALORE: India’s tour of Sri Lanka earlier this year followed the same pattern as Mike Tyson’s heavyweight title bout against Michael Spinks in June 1988. Just over a minute into the fight, a barrage of punches from Tyson made Spinks sink to the canvas on one knee. After the referee’s mandatory count, the two boxers moved toward the center of the ring.
Spinks tried to throw a punch and missed. Tyson lined up a left-right combination and didn’t. This time, as Spinks swayed to the floor, it was obvious he wouldn’t get up. The lasting image of the fight is of Spinks prone on the canvas, glassy-eyed, dazed and confused.
Cricket, sadly, doesn’t have the provision to call off such unequal contests. The tone for India’s rout was set on the opening day in Galle, when India piled up 399 for three before stumps. Shikhar Dhawan contributed 190 off just 168 balls, knocking the stuffing out of the Sri Lankan attack before tea. In their first innings in the three Tests, India would score 600, 622 for nine declared, and 487. Sri Lanka went past 300 just once. Three times in six innings they were bowled out for under 200. After winning the first Test by 304 runs, India won the next two by an innings. It wasn’t a contest, it was roadkill.
Those results went a long way to explaining the almost complete lack of interest in the return series, which began at Kolkata’s iconic Eden Gardens last week. Sri Lanka may have gone to the United Arab Emirates after that home drubbing and beaten Pakistan 2-0, but few gave them any hope against an Indian side that has lost one home Test in the past five years.
Sri Lanka’s record on India soil was also dismal, with 10 defeats and seven draws dating back to the first series in 1982. Even the great Muttiah Muralitharan struggled here. India survived his wiles in 2005 — when his tussle with Sachin Tendulkar in Delhi was one of the highlights — and then ruthlessly took him apart four years later. On both those tours, Sri Lanka had the better of drawn opening Tests before India stormed back to take the series 2-0.
In Kolkata, a game Sri Lanka dominated for long periods, it finished up with them hanging on to the edge of a cliff by their fingernails. Virat Kohli’s dazzling unbeaten 104 on the final day — the other batsmen on both sides managed 140 runs for the loss of 14 wickets — flipped the game on its head, allowing Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami to give Sri Lanka a real fright in the fading light.
There was still much for the visitors to savor. Suranga Lakmal bowled with impeccable control and skill in both innings. In the first, after Sri Lanka elected to bowl in overcast conditions on a green pitch, India couldn’t score off the first 46 balls he bowled. By then, he had accounted for KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli with both swing and subtle seam movement.
That India eventually got to 172 after being 50 for five was largely down to Cheteshwar Pujara’s defiant half-century, and the support for Lakmal — Lahiru Gamage and Dasun Shanaka — being fairly ordinary.
In an ideal scenario, neither man would have lined up against India. But such have been Sri Lanka’s pace-bowling woes over the past few years that selection has become a carousel ride. Nuwan Pradeep, who bowled superbly in the Galle loss to India, has been rested for this series, while Shaminda Eranga has battled both injury and the legality of his action. Dhammika Prasad, the best of the experienced lot, hasn’t played a Test in more than two years, and doubts persist as to whether he will ever complete the long road back from injury.
For the second Test in Nagpur, Sri Lanka could well bring in Vishwa Fernando, whose left-arm pace could provide a better foil for Lakmal. How Lakmal bounces back after his exertions at the sauna-like Eden Gardens also remains to be seen. India, having had their wake-up call, will be desperate to extend a frightening home record, at a venue where Dale Steyn bowled South Africa to an innings win in 2010.
The hosts will make two changes, with both Shikhar Dhawan and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who’s getting married, exiting the XI for personal reasons. Murali Vijay will open alongside Rahul, and the experienced Ishant Sharma will take Bhuvneshwar’s place. But after his heroics in Kolkata, all eyes will once again be on Kohli, India’s Captain Fantastic who is now serenaded in much the same way that Sachin Tendulkar once was.
 

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