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SL surprise awaits India

Since August 2004, in 16 matches at home, Sri Lanka have lost just one Test, to Pakistan, at Kandy. India, for all their strengths, are not going to find the going easy, reports Anand Vasu.

cricket Updated: Jul 24, 2008 16:15 IST
Anand Vasu

Sri Lanka is among the friendliest places to tour. Indians can arrive without a visa and will be welcomed. The hotels are world class, the people love their cricket and even the army personnel manning checkpoints are polite and soft-spoken, a vast departure from the ill-tempered and usually bribe-hungry policemen you encounter across most of India.

But all that warmth and affection evaporates into the humid seaside air when teams cross the boundary line and enter the field of play. Since August 2004, in 16 matches at home, Sri Lanka have lost just one Test, to Pakistan, at Kandy. India, for all their strengths, are not going to find the going easy. “There is a lot of pride involved. We don’t want anyone else to come and beat us at home. That’s the attitude we go with,” Mahela Jayawardene said on the eve of the first Test.

“The fans are here to support us and if this is our home ground, we would like to protect that (home record). That’s why we are very consistent at home and we will continue to do that because, as I said, there is a lot of pride involved in it.”

But it’s not merely a question of pride. It’s also a mastery of the conditions. Pitches have been slow and low, offering turn, but it takes a bowler of the skill and experience of Muttiah Muralitharan to exploit the conditions. The two things you are guaranteed if you play cricket in Sri Lanka at this time of the year are runs and rain interruptions. Whatever else you do, whatever weapons you have in reserve, you had better make sure you make big scores, for coming back from a deficit can be a monumental exercise.

That Ajantha Mendis and his quiver full of differing arrows have dominated conversation when there are two other bowlers in the team who have 1,048 Test scalps between them was not a point that went past the Indian skipper. Never given to flights of fancy and seldom surprised or excited by something, Kumble put things in perspective when asked about Mendis. “It’s his first Test match. Let’s not forget that. As a youngster when you play your first Test match you’re obviously nervous. That factor is there and if you look at our batting strength, most of them have played over 100 Test matches,” said

Kumble, just before the team jogged out to the outfield at the Sinhalese Sports Club for practice in the sweltering noon heat, said: “We respect every bowler. The two bowlers who have done well over the years are Murali and Vaas and you can’t discount that. It’s a matter of handling the bowlers you face and taking the opportunities that come your way as a batting unit.”

There’s no doubt that Mendis has caught the imagination of the public, and if he plays — which he seems all set to unless Wednesday dawns dramatically overcast — the attention coming his way will actually help both teams slip gently into Test-match mode. After the wild hype of the Indian Premier League, two teams dressed in white, referred to simply by their country names, will play a game whose original format has scarcely been tinkered with. The player referral system is a change but it’s not a departure from how bat and ball challenge each other for supremacy.

The Mendis mania has meant that hardly anyone is talking about Sachin Tendulkar (who averages a better-than-Bradman 111.66 in Sri Lanka) being 172 runs short of becoming the highest run-getter in Tests. It has meant that attention has been drawn away from Sri Lanka’s search for a fast bowler to partner the untiring Vaas, and India’s quest for continued overseas success. And there’s the small matter of the world-record 624-run stand that Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara put together at this very ground. When the build up is deliciously low key, barring the one sensation, you know it’s time for Tests. And no matter how many millions might be involved in any other form, it’s still the best cricket.