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Spinners hold all the keys
by Partab Ramchand
Jul 23, 2008
The Ajantha Mendis factor weighs heavily on the minds of the Indian think tank, notwithstanding their efforts to divert attention from Sri Lanka's new spin sensation - or mystery bowler as he is being termed. Talking to reporters on Monday senior batsman and former captain Rahul Dravid said that while the Indians respected Mendis they were not obsessed by him. "They have got a couple of other bowlers with over 1000 Test wickets between them", he said, obviously referring to Chaminda Vaas and Muthiah Muralitharan.

The fact remains that ever since the Asia Cup final when Mendis bamboozled the Indians with a mesmeric spell of six for 13 and bowled Sri Lanka to victory, there has been considerable speculation as to how the Indians would fare against him in the three Test series which commences at Colombo from Wednesday. India's limited overs captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni candidly admitted that none of his players could pick Mendis and this has given the young uncapped Sri Lankan a huge psychological advantage going into his first test. India's Test captain Anil Kumble has, however, expressed confidence that his batsmen would be able to read Mendis in the Tests. But there is no denying that Mendis will be the cynosure from the moment he comes on to bowl.

On the other hand by diverting attention from Mendis the Indians are admitting that the Sri Lankan attack is pretty potent. A double spin attack - constituting a bowler whose mystery is still unfathomable to the Indians and another who is Test cricket's highest wicket-taker - coupled with home conditions can constitute a considerable advantage and Sri Lanka will be looking to Murali and Mendis to keep them in front. The pace attack even with the presence of Vaas is unlikely to trouble the lustrous Indian batting line-up, but it is worth noting that in the last Test series seven years ago Murali ended up with 23 wickets at 19.30 apiece in the three matches.

In fact, I would not be surprised if spin bowlers hold the key in the three-Test series, for on the kind of placid surfaces that are expected, I don't see the Indian pace trio of Ishant Sharma, Zaheer Khan and RP Singh troubling the formidable Sri Lankan batting line-up. On his last trip seven years ago, Harbhajan had a nightmarish series bagging just four wickets at 73 apiece. But as is well known, he is a different bowler when he has Kumble for company. The Indian captain himself will want to make amends for his rather unhappy memories of visits to the island nation. On his last visit eleven years ago, he had just five wickets in two Tests at an astronomical average of 86. He had to miss out on the last tour following surgery to his shoulder. Kumble, however, did bowl India to their first victory in Sri Lanka with a match haul of eight wickets at Colombo in 1993.

At home, the Sri Lankan batsmen have proved time and again that they are able to raise their game several notches above their away record. Two instances will suffice as proof. Eleven years ago, Sri Lanka amassed 952 for six – interestingly enough against India - which is still the highest total in Test cricket. And only a couple of years ago, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara came up with a partnership of 624 against South Africa - the highest for any wicket in Test and first class cricket. Both these stalwarts can be expected to lead the Sri Lankan batting challenge this time too.

As strong the Lankan batting is, it will still have to take second billing to the Indian line-up. It must not be forgotten that in 2001, India were without Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman both out due to injuries. Mohammad Kaif and Hemang Badani had to stand in, and with Kumble missing too, the Indians not surprisingly lost the series narrowly, by a 2-1 margin. This time the visitors are without Dhoni, but if they are able to sort out Mendis, then there should be runs aplenty for the Fab Four and Virender Sehwag on tracks that are generally tailor-made for batsmen.

All eyes will be on Tendulkar once again for more reasons than one. He only needs another 172 runs to surpass Brian Lara's aggregate of 11,953 runs and take over as the leading run getter in Tests. Tendulkar has his heart set on reaching the summit during the three-Test series and as the cricketing world knows once he has an ambition and sets his sights on a goal it is difficult to stop him from getting there.

Admittedly the Sri Lankans have almost always proved hard to beat in their own backyard as the Indians have found out. There have been four full tours to the island nation since 1985 and the record reads: Sri Lanka won 2, India 1, drawn one. So then what's in store for Kumble and his men this time around? A fairly high scoring and closely fought series is what I envisage. But I will stop there and I am not going to stick my neck out in predicting the winner of the series.
 
More Views by Partab Ramchand
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