“Angie, you have an amazing team. You have an amazing future.”
Hearing this last section of Kumar Sangakkara’s retirement speech, Angelo Mathews may well have wondered to himself: “Really?” Because without Sangakkara, and without Mahela Jayawardene, who played his final Test last year, Sri Lanka are bracing themselves for a long and arduous rebuilding phase, with the “amazing future” a dot on the horizon. In their home season so far, Sri Lanka have lost two out of three Tests to Pakistan and are clearly not the momentum team as they go into a series decider against India.
Looking around his dressing room, Mathews will not see too many battle-hardened faces. Apart from himself and Rangana Herath – the only two players in the side with more than 50 Test caps – the most experienced player in the likely Sri Lanka eleven at the Sinhalese Sports Club is Dhammika Prasad, who will be playing his 23rd Test.
It is imperative, therefore, that the senior-ish players in their side, such as Prasad, Lahiru Thirimanne, Kaushal Silva and Dinesh Chandimal, add an extra level of consistency to their game and take on leadership roles to ease the pressure off Mathews and Herath.
They will have to begin doing this right away. Sri Lanka are likely to be without one of their main wicket-taking weapons at the SSC, with Tharindu Kaushal a doubtful starter after an Umesh Yadav bouncer bruised the thumb of his bowling hand during the second Test. Dilruwan Perera will offer more control but less incision.
Without Sangakkara, it is unclear how the batting order will resolve itself. Plenty of questions remain to be answered. Will Upul Tharanga slot in at No. 3, or will it be Thirimanne? Will Kusal Perera come in for Jehan Mubarak, and if so, will he keep wickets? Will the two new left-handers in the line-up be able to cope with R Ashwin’s round-the-wicket threat?
India will have to make a couple of forced personnel changes too, but they know to a fair degree what they can expect from most of their players. They are a lot further along the road in terms of experience and know-how, and know what the core of their team for the next four-five years will look like. Their batting, save for a couple of hiccups, is clicking into gear nicely, and their bowling attack, in recent times, has never looked as consistently threatening as it did at the P Sara Oval.
Even so, they have had to come back from behind to level this Test series, and will know, in all honesty, that they should have been 2-0 up already. Having let Sri Lanka off the hook in Galle, they will be itching to close out the series with a win, and show that they have become better players for the bruising experiences they have suffered on the road, with greater staying power and match awareness.
(last five matches, most recent first)
Sri Lanka: LWLWL
In the spotlight
With no Sangakkara in the side, the time has come for Lahiru Thirimanne to step up and become the consistent Test batsman he has always threatened to be. He showed glimpses of his potential in both Tests so far, but Sri Lanka want more from him. As vice-captain, they need him to improve his record – an average of 26.13 and only one century in 21 Tests – substantially.
Cheteshwar Pujara didn’t look particularly out of form during India’s tours of England and Australia, but while there were only three single-digit scores in 16 innings, he only made two half-centuries and no hundreds. That long run of unconverted starts brought his Test average down from close to 59 to just over 47, and cost him his place in the side. With M Vijay’s hamstring injury giving him a chance to play his first Test in 2015, Pujara will hope he has shrugged off the losses of concentration that have frustrated him of late, and is able to enter the trance-like zone that brought him bucketloads of runs in the early part of his career.
Sri Lanka are likely to make a couple of changes to their batting line-up, with Tharanga coming in for the retired Sangakkara and Kusal replacing the struggling Mubarak. If Kusal plays, he could take the wicketkeeping gloves off Dinesh Chandimal. Kaushal is a doubtful starter, with Dilruwan Perera his likely replacement. Nuwan Pradeep has recovered from the hamstring problem that kept him out of the second Test, and will probably take Dushmantha Chameera’s place in the pace attack.
Sri Lanka (probable) 1 Dimuth Karunaratne, 2 Kaushal Silva, 3 Upul Tharanga, 4 Lahiru Thirimanne, 5 Angelo Mathews (capt), 6 Dinesh Chandimal, 7 Kusal Perera (wk), 8 Dhammika Prasad, 9 Rangana Herath, 10 Tharindu Kaushal/Dilruwan Perera, 11 Nuwan Pradeep
With Vijay ruled out, India will field their third different opening combination of the series, with Pujara partnering KL Rahul. With Wriddhiman Saha also enduring hamstring issues, Naman Ojha should make his Test debut.
India (probable) 1 Cheteshwar Pujara, 2 KL Rahul, 3 Ajinkya Rahane, 4 Virat Kohli (capt), 5 Rohit Sharma, 6 Naman Ojha (wk), 7 Stuart Binny, 8 R Ashwin, 9 Amit Mishra, 10 Ishant Sharma, 11 Umesh Yadav
Pitch and conditions
Four of the last five Tests at the SSC have ended in draws, but its pitch belied its reputation as one of the flattest tracks in the world last year, when Sri Lanka beat Pakistan on a sporting surface that produced totals of 320, 332, 282 and 165. The pitch for this match might assist the seamers for the first couple of sessions before flattening out; there was grass on the surface on the eve of the match, but it seemed dry underneath. The weather could intervene from time to time, with Colombo experiencing scattered afternoon thunderstorms over the last few days.
Stats and trivia
R Ashwin is nine wickets from reaching 150 in Tests. If he manages it in this match, his 28th, he will join Clarrie Grimmett as the third quickest to the mark, with only Sydney Barnes and Waqar Younis ahead of them
If Naman Ojha plays for India, and if Kusal Perera plays and keeps wicket for Sri Lanka, it will be the 14th instance of two wicketkeepers making their debut in the same Test match. The last time it happened was in 2000, when Khaled Mashud and Saba Karim made their debuts in Bangladesh’s inaugural Test in Dhaka
Karthik Krishnaswamy Is A Senior Sub-Editor At Espncricinfo
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