The last time India arrived in Sri Lanka to play a Test series five years ago, the buzz in the air was spin. After all, Muttiah Muralitharan, the world’s leading Test wicket-taker, was retiring.
At the same Galle stadium, where the teams will kick off their three-match series on Wednesday, the off-spinner signed off with eight wickets, guiding the hosts to a 10-wicket victory. As India reached Sri Lanka’s southern coastal town, wickets and most of the pitch was under the covers with tyres placed all over to prevent the sea wind doing any damage.
The forecast for the Test match week is not good, and with two days left there is much anticipation of how the pitch could behave. In the warm-up game at Colombo’s R Premadasa Stadium, it was pacers Ishant Sharma and the home side’s Kasun Rajitha who grabbed five wickets each, cashing in on the conditions.
While Sri Lanka trying to catch India off-guard with pace at home may not dominate pre-series talk, that could precisely become the story if one looks at the spin options available on either side. For India, the questions could be over Harbhajan Singh.
Ravichandran Ashwin is settling down nicely as the No 1 spinner, finding his rhythm during the Australia series and sticking to subtle variations rather than trying too many things. Although he insisted that he was a very different bowler to Harbhajan, the idea of picking two off-break bowlers only suggest a lack of depth in India’s spin resources.
Harbhajan has a 10-for match haul at Galle, but that came in 2008 in a winning cause. The last time, in that Muralitharan farewell game, he failed to take a wicket, managing just two in the next game. Looking to find his feet on his return after two years, the Sri Lanka batsmen will present a big challenge.
After ripping into the Sri Lankan Board President’s XI with a five-wicket haul, Sharma interestingly made a statement that sounded like that of a stock bowler rather than a spearhead. "To be honest, playing in Asia, fast bowlers need to believe in themselves because you will not get as many overs as the spinners because spinners will dominate in Asia." That statement may have been valid until a few seasons ago, but can’t be applied universally to spinners of the region.
India’s bowling coach Bharti Arun pointed out how Pakistan’s recent series win in Sri Lanka came on turning pitches, but while leg-spinner Yasir Shah topped the series statistics with 24 scalps, the hosts’ best, young off-spinner Tarindu Kaushal, had nine.
Left-arm spinner Rangana Herath, 37, who appeared on the decline in that series, took one wicket in the second Test and didn’t play in the final game. Sri Lanka pacers did far better, and it won’t be a surprise if the home team’s management frets more over 22-year-old pacer Dushmanta Chameera, nursing a side strain, than Herath’s form, though he is expected to be back.
Sri Lankan wickets don’t break like some of the Indian pitches, and without uneven bounce or the ball hurrying off the surface, the demand will be on patience and flight variation rather than firing them in.
Still, between the two spin attacks, India seem to hold a slight edge in terms of Ashwin’s form and Bhajji’s experience. That can only encourage the hosts to take away any advantage for the visitors’ slow bowlers with many of their batsman looking to establish themselves and Kumar Sangakkara waiting to sign off.