The Indian cricket team will have an eye on the third spot in the International Cricket Council (ICC) rankings when they take on Sri Lanka in the first match of the three-Test series at the Galle International Cricket Stadium on Wednesday.
India, who currently occupy the fifth spot, will climb to the third position if they whitewash seventh-placed Sri Lanka 3-0 and Australia defeat England in the fifth Ashes Test at The Oval cricket ground starting on August 20. A 2-1 victory would see India gain three points.
India will be without in-form opener Murali Vijay, who sustained a hamstring injury during the recent Zimbabwe tour. Vijay will be replaced by Lokesh Rahul, who produced two 40-plus scores in the Indian team's tour opener in Colombo against the Sri Lankan Board President's XI. In Vijay's absence, Shikhar Dhawan and Rahul will now open for India.
Skipper Virat Kohli, who has not been among the runs lately, will be eager to regain his touch. Kohli's scores of 8 and 18 in the practice match left a lot to be desired. But in-form batsman Ajinkya Rahane, who scored a century in the first innings of the warm-up match, is expected to boost the middle-order while the talented Rohit Sharma will also be eager to get back among the runs.
From the bowling perspective, Ishant Sharma with his five-wicket haul has shown he has a lot to offer in these pitches. Varun Aaron will look to give the experienced Ishant good support from the other end. Spinners Ravichandran Ashwin and the veteran Harbhajan Singh will look to use the pitches to their advantage.
For the hosts, skipper and all-rounder Angelo Mathews, Lahiru Thirimanna, Dinesh Chandimal, Upul Tharanga are some of the players India need to watch out for. The Lankans have included uncapped 23-year-old pacer Vishwa Fernando in their 16-member squad. Fast bowler Dushmantha Chameera has also been selected, subject to a full recovery from a side strain he suffered during the series against Pakistan last month. In the batting department, Sri Lanka will once again depend on veteran batsman Kumar Sangakkara, who will end his illustrious career after the second Test match in Colombo.
On the eve of the Test, Sangakkara poured his 15 years of perspective, saying that it was important that future Sri Lanka players showed 'situational intelligence'. He could well have spoken for Team India.
On their last full series, in Australia, India's fast bowlers let the hosts off the hook in the second Test in Brisbane, pitching it repeatedly short to let Mitchell Johnson, subdued until then, take the match away. A reprieved Australia killed off India in four days to go 2-0 up in the series.
As on the last two days, the Galle International Stadium ground stayed under covers with truck tyres to hold them down. With more rain forecast for the week, it remains to be seen how the Test pans out. With India not being able to train on Tuesday, and with no idea about the pitch, Kohli didn't have to talk about the bowling combination.
He was relaxed ahead of his first full-fledged series as skipper. A question about him jabbing outside off-stump to be dismissed cheaply of late was met with a wide grin. "Jabbing at the ball has nothing to do with the captaincy," he joked.
India will be aware of Sri Lanka's frailties, though Galle is their fortress. At home, Sri Lanka won nine out of 10 Test series between August 2004 and August 2009, during the Muttiah Muralitharan era. Out of the next 10 series, only three have gone their way. Their last outing at Galle, against Pakistan, was a disastrous four-day defeat after the opening day was washed out. While the batsmen were spun out by leg-spinner Yasir Shah, left-arm spinner Rangana Herath managed one wicket.
The pacers cannot afford another off-day like in Australia, and Kohli will need to be more flexible as captain, which he admitted. "Even if it's an off-day, you still have time to re-group and think about what went wrong. If it's a good day, you can learn from it. As a captain you always feel more time with the team, and with more games to play, there are better chances of creating an environment that you require the team to be in."
Kohli also admitted that he and the team needed to learn from their experience in Australia. "Where we lacked in Australia was in composure. That's something we spoke about as a squad. You can see that the kind of times we had in Australia, in those sessions where we did leak a few runs, that has hurt them and they want to improve on that which is a great sign."
(With inputs from IANS)