Sample this for a fact. Since the turn of the millennium, only two hundreds have been scored in Tests in Sri Lanka by Indian batsmen. Both have come from the same man, Virender Sehwag. Between them, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman haven’t scored a ton on Sri Lankan soil since February 1999; indeed, Laxman has never topped three figures in five previous Tests in this country.
It’s on how many runs this meaty, experienced middle-order trio can amass that India’s chances of bouncing back at the SSC ground from Monday, and later in the third Test at the P Sara Oval, depend. Especially given the inexperience of the bowling attack, it becomes imperative for the regal triumvirate to fire on all cylinders if India are to mount a stirring fightback in a series they trail 0-1, and which could see them lose their number one Test ranking.
The signs were fairly promising in Galle. Dravid looked assured during both stints at the crease, Tendulkar was fairly imperious while stroking his way to a majestic 84 in the second knock, and Laxman shored up the second half of the second innings with a pugnacious half-century. They will, though, need to kick on and score big if India are to provide the mountain of runs that will allow their bowlers to gnaw away at Sri Lanka’s formidable batting line-up.
It is inevitable that the relative lightness of the bowling attack will play on the minds of the batsmen. Only Harbhajan Singh of the entire Indian bowling component on tour here has more than 70 Test wickets; in Sri Lanka, Harbhajan himself has taken just 23 wickets in eight Tests, including a ten-for in Galle last time around. Hardly inspiring numbers, which is exactly why the responsibility on the batsmen multiplies manifold.
Inasmuch as you need to take 20 wickets to win a Test match, it must be remembered that a majority of India’s victories, especially overseas, has come when the batsmen have been in supreme form. Bar the odd instance, such as the Dravid heroics at Sabina Park in 2006, India have seldom been on the right side of a low-scoring thriller away from home. These are facts not lost on the Dravid-Tendulkar-Laxman troika, which will be keen as mustard to set the record straight and make sure Sehwag isn’t always required to do the bulk of the scoring.
Tendulkar, unsurprisingly, has the best record of the three in Sri Lanka, averaging 61.21 in ten Tests with four centuries. The last of those tons, however, came at the SSC ground in the Asian Test Championship game in 1999, a game in which Dravid also made his only hundred in Sri Lanka.
The onus on the century is particularly crucial in Sri Lanka where, despite the largely flat tracks, it requires immense powers of concentration and huge reserves of stamina to kick on in enervating humidity. A singular mental lapse can prove fatal, even if there is no Malinga or Muttiah Muralitharan.
That Ajantha Mendis is back in the mix after being left out of the squad for the first Test will make the aforementioned trio even more determined, given the hold he had on Dravid and Laxman in particular two years back.
In 2008, on his debut series, Mendis accounted for Dravid four times, and Laxman on all five occasions he was dismissed, on his way to 26 wickets for the series. In many ways, that was one of Tendulkar’s worst ever outings, six innings yielding a meagre 95 runs; already in this series, he has nearly topped that mark after just one Test, but means nothing, given the high standards the little master has set for himself for over two decades now.
It will help if Gautam Gambhir can shed his first-over blues – Malinga’s absence must surely further his cause! – but for India to mount a serious challenge over the next two matches, Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman must occupy the crease for long periods. And come up with those big knocks that have made them the giants they are, but that have consistently eluded them in Sri Lanka for quite some time now.