India eye 100th victory

Milestone beckons as Dhonis men take on Lanka in opener today

India eye 100th victory

A different ball game: (From Left): VVS Laxman, Yuvraj Singh, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and MS Dhoni during a practice session on Sunday. REUTERS

The buzz was conspicuous by its absence, there was no frenetic hustle and bustle. There was a stately, under-stated air to proceedings as the Sardar Patel Gujarat stadium braced itself to welcome Test cricket back to India.

Not since Rahul Dravid shrugged off a rare lean patch with a stoic 136 in Mohali last December have India hosted a Test. Indeed, between then and now, India have played only three Tests, in New Zealand in March-April, when Mahendra Singh Dhoni led his men to their first series win on Kiwi soil for 33 years. History of a different, equally significant, sort awaits the Indians as they begin their quest to maintain home hegemony over Sri Lanka when the first Test gets cracking on Monday.

In their 75th year as a Test entity, India stand one win shy of 100 Test victories. For a side that has provided the cricketing world with some of the most entertaining superstars, 99 victories from 430 matches for a winning percentage of 23.02 is a modest record. Number 100, therefore, will be an important milestone, especially if it comes in the immediacy of Sachin Tendulkar completing 20 years in international cricket.

Tendulkar has always had a sense of the occasion. Every major milestone has been greeted by a meticulously crafted masterpiece, including as recently as earlier this month when he celebrated reaching 17,000 one-day runs with a monumental 175 in Hyderabad. Some of the sheen was taken away by India’s inability to cash in on a winning position as Australia held their nerve in a high-scoring thriller. How well India hold their nerve, and how quickly they can shake off their 2-4 loss to Ricky Ponting’s side, will dictate if they are able to stretch their domination at home against a Sri Lankan side also eyeing a slice of history.

Never before in their short international career – Sri Lanka hold only an eight-year edge over Tendulkar at the Test level! – have the islanders flirted with the top ranking. A series win in a country where they have travelled poorly will put them on top of the Test standings, a wonderful achievement for a tiny nation that has established itself as perennial over-achievers. India can take over the top spot if they win the series 2-0.

Wealth of talent

Given the wealth of talent and the weight of experience behind them, Kumar Sangakkara’s men have every reason to believe they can break the Indian duck. Their batting wears a well-rounded look, medium-paced all-rounder Angelo Mathews lends the balance which allows them to play four specialist bowlers, and they have three wonderful, versatile and dangerous spinners who should have a massive say over the next three weeks.

Indeed, it’s the spinning combination that has the Lankans in a tizzy. Ajantha Mendis’ exceptional success against the Indians last year, when he took 26 wickets in his debut series, should make him the obvious choice to partner Muttiah Muralitharan, but the Mendis mystery has waned somewhat since. In the interim, Rangana Herath made the most of an unexpected Test recall by running rings around Pakistan and New Zealand.

Sangakkara and the think-tank must pick between Mendis’ perceived hold over the Indians and left-arm spinner Herath’s recent form. Not an easy call at all, unless they plump for all three spinners on a strip likely to aid spin over the last couple of days.
In their heart of hearts, the Indians will be hoping Mendis gets the nod, because they believe there is some unfinished business left, a record to set straight, an embarrassment to erase. India’s vaunted batting line-up was laid threadbare by Mendis’ complex bag of the off-break, the googly and the ‘carrom ball’ in Sri Lanka last year.
Perhaps, it’s payback time?

India must choose between the out of sorts Ishant Sharma and the temperamental, tempestuous S Sreesanth, recalled out of the blue, to partner Zaheer Khan. Their last memory of Motera is anything but pleasant – they slumped to 76 all out in 20 overs in the first session to surrender the Test to South Africa last year – as they seek to exorcise several demons of the past in one go.

Teams (from):

India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt), Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Amit Mishra, Ishant Sharma, S Sreesanth, Pragyan Ojha, S Badrinath, M Vijay.

Sri Lanka: Kumar Sangakkara (capt), Tillakaratne Dilshan, Tharanga Paranavitana, Mahela Jayawardene, Thilan Samaraweera, Angelo Mathews, Prasanna Jayawardene, Nuwan Kulasekara, Thilan Thushara, Muttiah Muralitharan, Ajantha Mendis, Rangana Herath, Dammika Prasad, Thilina Kandamby, Kaushal Silva, Chanaka Welegedara.

Umpires: Tony Hill (New Zealand) and Daryl Harper (Australia). Third umpire: Amish Saheba. Match referee: Jeff Crowe (New Zealand).

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