Making sense of the big stories

'It'd be surprising if India got anything out of this series'

Sanjay Manjrekar, Sidharth Monga and Dileep Premachandran preview the uphill task facing a weakened India in their three-Test series in Sri Lanka (12:11)

Producers: Akhila Ranganna and Siddhartha Talya

July 17, 2010

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India in Sri Lanka 2010

'It'd be surprising if India got anything out of this series'

July 17, 2010

If cricket fans haven't had enough of India-Sri Lanka contests in recent times, they are in for more when the two teams meet for a three-Test series starting tomorrow. India begin their tour this time with more concerns - a pattern consistent with the trend of the teams having the better of each other on their respective home turfs.

Zaheer Khan, who picked up three wickets, offers words of wisdom to Sreesanth, India v Sri Lanka, Tri-series, 5th ODI, Mirpur, January 10, 2010
No Zaheer Khan or Sreesanth: "Another cricket series India are going into with bowling being their major weakness" © Associated Press

Chief among India's worries is their weakened bowling. The loss of Zaheer Khan and Sreesanth due to injury has placed a huge responsibility on an inexperienced pace attack led by Ishant Sharma. Sri Lanka on the other hand have been boosted by the return of Lasith Malinga and the presence of more fast-bowling options. While batting remains India's strength, their counterparts, who have been prolific in home conditions, have the luxury of being backed up by a seemingly more potent bowling attack.

Can India overcome their problems, or is it too stiff a task against a Sri Lankan side at home? We spoke to former Indian batsman Sanjay Manjrekar, and Cricinfo's Dileep Premachandran, and Sidharth Monga, who is in Sri Lanka, for their views.

Sanjay Manjrekar: There is no doubt in anyone's mind that Sri Lanka are the favourites or look the stronger side going into this series, purely because of India's big hole as far as the weakness in their bowling [is concerned]. And what really disturbs me is, this is another cricket series India are going into with bowling being their major weakness. It is something that India haven't quite addressed strongly enough. I am a big believer in setting goals and objectives and I think people involved at the highest level have to set this goal to make India's bowling, for once, their strong point. Something needs to be done and looked into as far as this frequent breakdown of India's fast bowlers is concerned.

Sidharth Monga: First of all, Zaheer is a huge blow, as well as Sreesanth. Ishant, being a hit-the-deck bowler, you need swing bowlers [to partner him] in Sri Lanka. Both Zaheer and Sreesanth could swing the ball. What India have left are Ishant, Munaf Patel and Abhimanyu Mithun. They all rely on seam movement. So that [swing] is the biggest loss in Sri Lanka when you lose Zaheer and Sreesanth. Also, Zaheer's experience is huge. He has reached a stage where he knows how to take wickets. And suppose shant and Mithun were here with Zaheer, they would have had so much to learn from him. Now they are on their own. Ishant, who has barely played a year of Test cricket, has to lead the pace attack. So obviously these are huge blows. Do Sri Lanka have an edge? I'm not sure but it has become a level playing field now.

India have called up Mithun and Munaf to replace their two injured bowlers, but the loss of key players, India's captain MS Dhoni admitted, was a concern.

MS Dhoni: It is a bit of a concern because the World Cup is also coming, and we have important series ahead of us. You want a set of bowlers but somehow we have been missing more bowlers due to injury than form. We play a lot of cricket, so the amount of effort one has to put in, you have to put in everything whether it is a Test match, ODI or practice sessions. So I think injuries will be part of it, it's just that we are missing too many bowlers at the same time because of injuries.

In Test matches since 2005 at home, Sri Lanka have been beaten just twice and have won 16. While Muttiah Muralitharan has been a crucial factor in their success, he has been supported by a batting line-up that includes Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, who have been formidable in home conditions. Sanjay and Cricinfo's associate editor Dileep Premachandran believe Sri Lanka's batting poses a huge challenge.

"Ajantha Mendis is not there in the squad for the first Test, which has taken me by shock, considering the kind of memories India have from the last tour. They should have ignored his recent form and just played him based on his exploits in the last Test series that India played in Sri Lanka" Sanjay Manjrekar

Sanjay Manjrekar: Sri Lanka are a very competent side in Sri Lanka. One of the things that really flattens the opposition when they tour Sri Lanka is the big appetite of the Sri Lankan batsmen. Once a Mahela Jayawardene gets set, especially at Galle - he has got a great record at Galle - people like Sangakkara, Samaraweera; I like Kandamby as well - once these guys get in, they will not give anything away. Tillakaratne Dilshan is now a hundred-maker. So that is what grinds the opposition. Once these batsmen get to a hundred they go on to make 150 or 200; they don't throw it away. Sometimes their seam bowling may not be as potent as other teams', but because the opposition is looking at a mountain to climb, the bowlers become that much more potent. So they reap the rewards of what their batsman have done. And if you compare the bowling attack, with the talent they have in their seamers and spinners, it looks a much better bowling attack than India's.

Dileep Premachandran: I'm not sure how much of a factor Indian spin will be in any case. I know Harbhajan took a ten-wicket haul at Galle in 2008 to set up an Indian win, but by and large Indian spinners have not really run through Sri Lankan sides for a long time now. I think Sri Lanka have the batsmen to feel very confident about going out to play in their conditions. It is going to be a very uphill task for Harbhajan and whoever plays with him because I think it can be taken for granted that a couple of batsmen [as you saw in the tour game] will be told to just go after them from ball one and get them off their rhythm. That will leave Dhoni with very few options if that happens.

In the three-day tour game preceding the Tests, spinners from both teams made an impact. Ajantha Mendis, who had tormented India's batsmen during their previous tour of Sri Lanka but hasn't been picked for the first Test, bagged a six-wicket haul, while Pragyan Ojha starred for the visitors with eight wickets in the match. How do the two spin attacks compare?

Sanjay Manjrekar: I'd like to believe that Ajantha Mendis will be quickly called into plans. He is not there in the squad for the first Test, which has taken me by shock, considering the kind of memories that India have from the last tour. They should have ignored his recent form and just played him based on his exploits in the last Test series India played in Sri Lanka. I think [Suraj] Randiv is a decent bowler - he is tall and bowls with a high-arm action. Rangana Herath has got some confidence, and if Mendis comes in that is a pretty decent bowling attack, especially in Sri Lanka. That makes a huge difference. Mendis, Herath and Randiv on flat pitches in India may not be much of a threat, but in Sri Lankan conditions they can be quite potent.

Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara prepare on the eve of the second Test, Lahore, February 28, 2009
"Once these guys get in, they give nothing away" © AFP

Sidharth Monga: Harbhajan will have to obviously lead the attack now. It's time for him, with the three younger bowlers under him, to take charge. Also, he's had problems with the Kookaburra balls in the past; he'll have to get over that too. Having seen the other two spinners in the tour game, it's become imperative that Harbhajan comes in fit and healthy and takes charge, because both Amit Mishra and Pragyan Ojha were a bit disappointing. Mishra more so than Ojha. Ojha, being more a limited-overs kind of bowler, can do okay to hold one end up if he has an attacking bowler at the other end. So Harbhajan is the most crucial factor in this team right now.

The burden on India's batsmen has increased with the under-strength bowling attack, but will their struggles against spin two years ago as well as in the tour game be weighing on their minds?

Dileep Premachandran: I don't like to use words like "redemption" because every batting line-up goes through a series or a couple of matches where the form is below par. I think that is what happened to India in 2008. You also have to remember there was no Dhoni then and that really upset the team balance in a lot of ways. This will be a different series in that respect but at the same time it can be taken for granted that unless India scores huge first-innings runs in all three of the Tests, Sri Lanka will start big favourites.

Sanjay Manjrekar: I don't think we should look too much into India's batting performance in the warm-up game. We are talking about seasoned Test players, and generally warm-up matches are not a great indicator of how they are going to shape up in the real cricket that is to follow. I expect India's batsmen to play Mendis a lot better. I think they will have made notes and they won't repeat the same mistakes. But having said that it will be interesting to see how it goes. If there is pressure on the Indian batsmen with Sri Lanka setting up big scores, then it may get a little difficult for India to counter someone like Mendis. But if the Indian batting is in the ascendancy then Mendis will be a lot easier to handle. The key will be for the batsmen to get the psychological advantage to counter the bowling in the opposition.

Currently ranked No. 1 in Tests, India will be determined to live up to their billing though our experts believe it could be a tough task.

Dileep Premachandran: I think it will be very difficult. The No. 1 ranking will be there at the back of their mind, perhaps. It won't be the all-consuming thing, but they will be conscious of that. It will be an uphill task. I will be surprised if Sri Lanka didn't win the series. I will go with 2-0 rather than 2-1. I would be surprised if India got anything out of this series given the blows they have been dealt on the bowling front.

Sanjay Manjrekar: With the kind of bowling India have, it is very unlikely they will win the series. If they do, it will be a victory that was least expected, even by the most optimistic cricket fans. I see this as being a typical high-scoring Test series. Sangakkara perhaps won't be as bad as the other captains before him, but they are not guys who will take risks and make declarations that will give you a result. They will take the safe route and pile on the runs and put pressure on the opposition. My feeling is that you will get high-scoring draws and the odd result in between, and if India win the Test series, hats off to them, the kind of limitations they are going in with.

Sidharth Monga: With weak bowling line-ups, I dread high-scoring draws. Given how the Indian bowlers performed in the tour game, there will have to be a huge improvement from them to create results out here. There is a difference between being No. 1 and being unarguably the best side in the world. Australia when they were No. 1, and also the best side in the world, they had won series against almost all the sides at home as well as away. If you look at India's last series in Sri Lanka, they lost, and it will be a huge correction in that regard with South Africa and Australia to go.

The first Test in Galle will also be Muttiah Muralitharan's last. India's batsmen will be keen to deprive him of the victorious send-off that Sri Lanka so want for him.

With Siddhartha Talya, this is Akhila Ranganna for Cricinfo.

Posted by Nampally on (July 17, 2010, 18:50 GMT)

Indiia can get something out of this series. Yuvraj's potential in batting and Ishant + Mithun, Unadkat, Yadev's Joint capabailty to answer Indian pace bowling needs. Surely powerful Indian batting can put up big totals to take care of the batting while bowling led by Harbhajan can still take 20 SL wickets at least once.I won't be surprised if this happens to silence the critics. Good Luck! Admittedly the Indian bowling is weak and has been so since Kumble retired. India relied on spinners with occasional contiribution from pacemen .The Indian cricketers lack physical fitness which has hampered the whole team and particularly the fast bowlers.My advise to the Selectors is to start 4 camps at diifferent locations for coaching bowlers. These should be graded from 14 year olds upto 22 years. Get 4 excellent coaches such as Lee, Warne, Wasim Akram and Kumble. This will be a 5 year plan to produce future Indian bowling. This way positive action is in place rather than ongoing criticism.

Posted by No-ryan on (July 17, 2010, 16:30 GMT)

I know I sound like a nit picker. But, it is only expected out of analysis to be correct. While not disagreeing with the sentiments expressed, I have to point out that Aussies when they were #1 were not winning every series as claimed by one of the speakers. If India lost the last Lankan tour, Aussies also lost two tours to India in 98 and 2001 and the Lanka series in 1999. If you add the loss of ashes in 2005. They didn't win against WI in 1999 either. In between 1999 and 2001 there was a period when they won all the test matches. Now India is not capable of that. But to make a point that "look India last last Lankan tour" is a a bit hollow.

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