Battle of survival for India

Gautam Gambhir suffers niggle on his right knee ahead of the crucial match against Lanka

Battle of survival for India

An encore is imperative at a Sri Lankan bastion in the second Test beginning on Monday if Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men are to retain their standing as the number one Test-playing nation in the world.

To suggest that Sri Lanka looms as the final frontier will be something of an exaggeration, given that India haven’t won a Test series either in Australia or South Africa. That said, successive Indian sides have found the heady mix of slow, low tracks, draining conditions, artful bowlers and home-grown batsmen too potent a combination, which is why their last series triumph dates back to 1993.

A series victory will be the last thing on Dhoni’s mind when he walks out for the toss with Kumar Sangakkara at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground, invariably a staunch ally as the likes of Mahela Jayawardene, Sangakkara and Thilan Samaraweera have enjoyed a veritable run-fest.

It is at this venue, where Sri Lanka have lost just six and won 17 of 33 Tests played, that India face the onerous task of pulling off a series-levelling win. Victory at the SSC will guarantee India’s status as the top Test team at the end of the series. Defeat will mean not only the loss of another series in the Emerald Isles, but also potentially the top ranking earned with such diligence towards the end of last year.

The key, as ever, to India’s fortunes rest with their famed batting line-up, a melange of astonishing firepower and bewildering skills. Indian away wins have largely been fashioned by the flexing of the batting muscle; for the team to give itself a fighting chance of stopping the Lankan juggernaut, it is essential that the more celebrated Indian component makes its presence felt in all its splendour.

Even without Gautam Gambhir, nursing a niggle in his right knee and somewhat of a doubt, India have enough quality, experience and class to buck a disturbing recent trend that has seen no one apart from Virender Sehwag score a century in Sri Lanka in the last 11 years. Gambhir did have a full-fledged net session on Sunday, but a final call on his availability won’t be taken until Monday morning. Should he be ruled out, it will mean a sixth Test for Murali Vijay, the stylish Tamil Nadu opener.

It’s a mystery why India’s top-order, so prolific in every part of the world, has struggled to touch three-figures in Sri Lanka consistently. The enervating humidity included, conditions here aren’t too dissimilar to home, so it is perhaps more a coincidence than anything else, but that is hardly any consolation.

If India are looking for positives, they need not look beyond the conspicuousness by their absence of Galle tormentors Muttiah Muralitharan and Lasith Malinga, the former through retirement and the latter through injury. They can, however, hardly afford complacency because their destroyer of two years back, Ajantha Mendis, is primed for a recall at a venue where he took eight wickets on Test debut against the same opposition 24 months back.

A more healthy covering of grass than at any time in the recent past has triggered no more than token doubt in the minds of the Indian think-tank. The underlying dryness will all but ensure that India will only briefly flirt with, and discard, the possibility of playing a third seamer at the expense of Pragyan Ojha’s disappointing left-arm spin in the first Test.

Led by Harbhajan Singh, the bowlers must find ways of picking up 20 wickets, because no match can be won entirely on the back of big runs on the board. Despite the absence of M&M, Sri Lanka are justified in quietly fancying their chances. A recall for Mendis and Dammika Prasad, who destroyed India at the P Sara Oval on debut in 2008, is very much on the cards, though the possibility of one or both of Dilhara Fernando and offie Suraj Randiv figuring in a revamped bowling set-up can’t be entirely ruled out.

Teams (from): Sri Lanka: Kumar Sangakkara (capt), Tharanga Paravanavitana, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Mahela Jayawardene, Thilan Samaraweera, Angelo Mathews, Prasanna Jayawardene, Rangana Herath, Dammika Prasad, Ajantha Mendis, Chanaka Welegedara, Dilhara Fernando, Suraj Randiv, Nuwan Pradeep, Thilina Kandamby, Lahiru Thirimanne.

India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt), Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh, Abhimanyu Mithun, Ishant Sharma, Pragyan Ojha, Murali Vijay, Munaf Patel, Amit Mishra, Suresh Raina, Wriddhiman Saha.

Umpires: Daryl Harper and Rod Tucker (both Australia). Third umpire: Ranmore Martinesz. Match referee: Andy Pycroft (Zimbabwe).

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