All the talk in the lead-up to the Sri Lanka tour has been about the coaching staff of the Indian cricket team, but it will be time for the players to make their mark when they face the Board President’s XI in a two-day match starting on Friday. India are the top-ranked Test team in the world, and though the hosts are in a rebuilding phase, skipper Virat Kohli and new coach Ravi Shastri will not like to take any chances.
“They know their job, they are professional cricketers. Once they step on the field, they take over. That is how it should be,” said Shastri. “My role will be to get the guys in a frame of mind that they get out and express themselves and play a fearless brand of cricket.”
This is the only practice game before three back-to-back Tests in Galle, Colombo and Pallekele, and there are a few selection conundrums to be sorted out. With first-choice opener Murali Vijay ruled out due to injury, one of either Shikhar Dhawan and Abhinav Mukund is likely to partner KL Rahul at the top of the order. Mukund was part of the original squad while Dhawan was drafted in as a replacement. But the latter has the pedigree in the Test format and has been in a rich form of late in the shorter formats.
“Abhinav (Mukund) is there, he has played lot of domestic cricket. Shikhar got a hundred here last time and then he had to miss a couple of games,” Kohli said on his arrival in Colombo on Thursday. “(Cheteshwar) Pujara opened in the last Test (in Sri Lanka). So guys are looking at these scenarios as opportunities rather than getting under pressure. I am sure they are going to be up for it.”
The team management will also have to decide whether to go with five batsmen or six. The latter may allow the returning Rohit Sharma a look-in. Kuldeep Yadav’s exploits in his only Test till date (in Dharamsala) and the few limited-overs opportunities he has got mean there is a decision to make on the bowling front as well. If Kuldeep is part of a three-pronged spin attack, there will be not more than two spots available for pacers with as many as five suitors.
Sri Lanka went down to Zimbabwe in an ODI series at home before needing a record fourth-innings chase to scrape home in the one-off Test. There has been a change at the top as well, with Angelo Mathews stepping down and Dinesh Chandimal taking over captaincy duties. But Kohli knows that in veteran left-arm spinner Rangana Herath, the hosts have a weapon which can make the difference single-handedly.
“He is such a good bowler. If you don’t find a solution to tackle him, then he will do what he did at Galle (on the last tour when Herath scripted a dramatic victory). You have to stay a step ahead of the opposition and find ways to counter it. If mistakes happen consistently, you are not improving as a side,” the captain stated. Shastri believes Sri Lanka is always a tough nut to crack on their home patch.
“Their track record playing at home is as good as any other team. As the Indian team, we are not going to take them lightly, we are not going to take things for granted. We’d like to be consistent so we’ll keep that No.1 position in place. We would look to improve in the series. Else there is no point playing. You have to try and raise the bar whenever you play.”