Flashback to 1979. India and Sri Lanka began their ODI rivalry with a World Cup game. Fairly new to international cricket at that point, Sri Lanka defeated a full-strength Indian side that was struggling to find its feet in the mega event.
Since then, India-Sri Lanka emerged as a riveting rivalry, getting overshadowed by the political tension reflecting on cricketing contests between India and Pakistan. Between 1991 and 1995, India won 57.1% of their games against Sri Lanka. In the next five-year cycle, Sri Lanka took the upper hand by winning exactly the same proportion of their matches - 57.1% - against India. Between 2001 and 2005, India got the better of their southern neighbours again, winning 56.5% of the contests between the two sides.
The pendulum of domination kept swinging between the two nations until Sri Lanka failed to find adequate replacements for their ageing quality players. Consequently, the enthralling contests between the two Asian nations became a timid affair with the Sri Lankan side becoming a punching bag for their Indian counterparts.
The last time India toured Sri Lanka, India clean swept the hosts 9-0 across formats in 2017. India has now arrived at their shores with a much different squad. Only for the second time in their cricket history, they have two squads in different parts of the world - the first occasion being in 1998. It is the backup squad that is in Sri Lanka.
The objective lies in not only winning but giving a chance to the youngsters for the upcoming T20 World Cup and more. It is a chance for various fringe players and those on the brink of getting out-of-favour to showcase their mettle.
Almost everyone, including the skipper for the tour, Shikhar Dhawan, has something to play for which adds a unique flavour to this side. While Dhawan will be throwing his name in the hat for the reserve openers, the other slots India would look to fill would be of the frontline spinner for the T20 World Cup, a third wicket-keeper and have another look at the fitness of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Hardik Pandya, both of whom are key players in India’s white-ball fortunes.
The only familiarity for India from the 2017 tour would be the return of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal. That tour was one of the first few series in their rise as a bowling pair. They toppled many oppositions on their way to earning the moniker Kul-Cha.
Times have changed now. Kuldeep has lost his place in the side and Chahal is treading on thin ice. Amongst those who have played a fair bit of international cricket, this series means more for them than anyone else. They will take courage from their previous outing to the island nation and we can expect them to break the Sri Lankan batting as well as the internet amongst the Indian contingent of cricket fans.
In the other camp, Sri Lankan cricket is stuck in a rut. This is arguably the worst phase in their cricket history where they have a win percentage of 31.3% against the Test-playing nations since 2019, better than only Ireland, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan in this time period. They are placed 12th in the 13-team ICC Men’s World Cup Super League. For a team that played five finals in 10 ICC events between 2006 and 2015, there is a chance where they will have to play qualifiers for the 2023 World Cup. Players have considered going on a strike due to contract issues.
Sri Lanka head into the series losing each of their three ODI series - against the West Indies, Bangladesh and England. The root cause of their incessant run of losses has been their batting.
"If our batsmen are averaging 40 consistently, we're getting enough runs. With our attack, we'll have enough to bowl sides out," Mickey Arthur, Sri Lanka’s head coach, told The Cricket Monthly in April 2021. The runs just have not come. It can be seen in the plunge in their batting numbers. Such is their plight, that their leading run-scorer since 2020 is Wanindu Hasaranga (403), a leg-spinner who made his debut as a bowling all-rounder.
While India are playing with their backup squad, Sri Lanka’s squad has also depleted inadvertently. Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) suspended three players for a bio-bubble breach earlier this month, all of whom are batsmen - Kusal Mendis, Danushka Gunaratne and Niroshan Dickwella. You add the absence of their most experienced batsman who played in England recently - Kusal Perera - and Sri Lanka collapses in the experience department. Dhananjaya de Silva is their most experienced player and he has played only 50 ODIs. The second in the line is the skipper, Dasun Shanaka who has only 28 ODIs under his belt. Shanaka is also Sri Lanka’s 10th white-ball captain in the last four years.
One cannot be blamed for anticipating a similar result to what happened in 2017. But one can also suggest that Sri Lankan cricket has hit the rock-bottom, a position from where there is only one way and that is up.
India: Prithvi Shaw, Devdutt Padikkal, Shikhar Dhawan (c), Suryakumar Yadav, Sanju Samson/Ishan Kishan (wk), Hardik Pandya, Krunal Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Navdeep Saini/Chetan Sakariya
Sri Lanka: Pathum Nissanka, Avishka Fernando, Dhanajaya de Silva, Minod Bhanuka (wk), Dasun Shanaka (c), Wanindu Hasaranga, Ramesh Mendis, Isuru Udana, Akila Danajaya, Dushmantha Chameera, Kasun Rajitha
Picture Courtesy: SLC