India chase history in Mumbai

India chase history in Mumbai

Top spot in Tests up for grabs as Dhonis men meet Lanka

India chase history in Mumbai

Cricketers S Sreeshanth and V V S Laxman during a practice session ahead of the third test match between India and Sri Lanka, in Mumbai on Monday. PTI

Only last week, at Green Park in Kanpur, India registered their 100th victory, crushing Sri Lanka by an innings and 144 runs in the second Test. Another victory in the final Test, beginning on Wednesday at the history-filled Brabourne stadium – making a Test comeback after 36 years – will catapult Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men to the top of the ICC Test ratings.

Should that coronation transpire, it will be the ultimate culmination of a wonderfully fruitful journey dating back several years. This decade alone, India have won more than a third of their matches, their overseas record as glittering as their home record is envious. The number one status will be no more than they deserve, perfect reward for years of consistency and versatility accompanied by flair and panache.

On form, Dhoni’s men start favourites to double their 1-0 advantage, but Sri Lanka have shown in the last couple of years that they too can travel well. An elusive Test win in India and the opportunity to level the series will be the motivation Kumar Sangakkara will dangle in front of his team-mates.

The talking point this series, apart from the state of the pitches, has been Muttiah Muralitharan’s less than penetrative bowling. Test cricket’s highest wicket-taker has looked a pale shadow of his normal intimidating self, undone by the flatness of the surfaces, the great relish with which India’s batsmen have taken to him, the passage of time and a ravaged body that might drive him to retirement before his final goal, the 2011 World Cup.

The 37-year-old is carrying a side strain which, however, is unlikely to keep him out of the playing eleven. Muralitharan isn’t unaware of how crucial his presence is to Sangakkara; such is the stuff champions are made of that it doesn’t take them much time to shed recent tribulations. In his final Test in India, and overseas, the Kandy man will look to add substantially to his mammoth tally of 788 Test wickets as he teams up with Rangana Herath. Medium-pacer Nuwan Kulasekara is set to make his first appearance of his series at the expense of Ajantha Mendis.

If Muralitharan is looking for an ally, he will find one in the Brabourne surface. Traditionally, pitches in Mumbai have tended to possess more pace and bounce compared to other centres in the country and, when at their freshest, assist the quicker bowlers too. Morning moisture and the influential late evening breeze, given the proximity to the sea, should keep the quicker bowlers interested throughout the day; gradual wear and tear should bring the spinners increasingly into the equation from day three onwards, which is why India could resist the temptation to go in with Ishant Sharma as the third paceman ahead of Pragyan Ojha’s left-arm spin.

It isn’t Muralitharan alone who will welcome a surface more to his liking than those in Ahmedabad and Kanpur. His Indian counterpart, Harbhajan Singh, too has struggled to impose himself despite having had the luxury of operating in slightly more favourable conditions. Somewhat outbowled by Ojha on debut in Kanpur, the offie can draw inspiration from the fact that it was here, in 1972-73, that BS Chandrasekhar picked up his 200th Test wicket, against England.

How much India are affected by Gautam Gambhir’s absence remains to be seen. Stacking up centuries with practiced ease, the left-handed opener has opted out of the final Test to attend his sister’s wedding, opening the door for Murali Vijay to make his first Test appearance since his debut against Australia last November. The Gambhir-Virender Sehwag tandem has been the scourge of many an opposition with its bruising strokeplay and furious running; whether Vijay can adequately fill the recently developed giant shoes of Gambhir will have a big say on how quickly India get on top of Sri Lanka, particularly given the hosts’ heavy dependence on a good start.

Dhoni’s luck with the coin has held so far, and while the toss won’t be anywhere near as decisive as it was in Kanpur, it will still have a bearing. After all, well begun is half done.

Umpires: Daryl Harper (Australia) and Nigel Llong (England). Third umpire: Shahvir Tarapore. Match referee: Jeff Crowe (New Zealand).