India v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Kanpur November 23, 2009

Spin conundrum for both teams

Cricinfo staff
Will Sri Lanka pick Ajantha Mendis over Rangana Herath? What does the much-scrutinised pitch have in store?

After batting practice at the Motera, what awaits these two teams at Green Park, where the last two Test matches have seen two extremes? In 2004, India and South Africa fought out a desperately dull draw, enlivened only by a double-century partnership for the first wicket between Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir.

Then, 19 months ago, with the first season of the IPL just days away, the same sides needed just three days to finish off a game, on a surface where the top layer started coming off on the opening afternoon. Both managed respectable first innings totals, but by the third day, the ball was darting both ways, with even the bowlers unsure of what was likely to happen.

Having earned the wrath of the ICC as a result, Kanpur has come up with an interesting pitch for the second Test against Sri Lanka. The grass cover on the surface hasn't yet been removed. The razor is likely to come out on Tuesday morning, but hopefully a few hours under the sun will allow it to bind better and be less prone to cracking up as soon as play begins.

As South Africa found out in that last game here, batting first is no guarantee of success. There's little doubt though that the pace bowlers on both sides should enjoy the first hour or more of play. Winter has set in and there's dew at night, and there will certainly be some morning freshness in the pitch. There should be also be quite a few runs, with the curator suggesting that the slow bowlers will come to the fore over the final two days.

That leaves both sides with a selection conundrum or two. Both sets of spinners were unimpressive on the treacle-slow Motera surface, and Sri Lanka will surely be tempted to bring in Ajantha Mendis if variable bounce is expected to play a part in the latter stages of the match. But will he replace Rangana Herath, or be part of a spin-trident that leaves Chanaka Welegedara and Angelo Mathews to share pace-bowling duties?

If some grass does survive the cull tomorrow, it's far more likely that they'll go in with two specialist pace bowlers. Nuwan Kulasekara offers greater control and the prospect of some lateral movement, but it's Dilhara Fernando that can supply raw pace, especially as Dammika Prasad misses out with a Grade-I hamstring tear.

India are more likely to resist the temptation to tinker. Amit Mishra had a poor game in Ahmedabad - not that Harbhajan Singh was much better - but having bowled so well against Australia last year, the team management will hope that more time in the middle equates to greater control and better rhythm. Having not even played first-class cricket since March, it would be harsh in the extreme if he was dumped after one ordinary performance.

Ishant Sharma was equally profligate in Ahmedabad, and nowhere near as quick as the lively Prasad, but he too is likely to get a second chance. Sreesanth is the man in waiting, but he might have to stay patient at least until the teams get to Mumbai.

India's top order redeemed itself in the second innings at the Motera, after a very ordinary first hour gifted Sri Lanka the initiative. Every batsman in the top seven managed at least a half-century, though a similar collapse here could prove far more costly.

Sri Lanka have no such worries for the moment, having piled up 760 despite both Kumar Sangakkara and Thilan Samaraweera squandering starts. Mahela Jayawardene was ruthless on a placid pitch, and if the surface here turns out to be more spin-friendly, they will certainly be confident of breaking their duck on Indian soil.

Ticket sales thus far have been poor, an indication that despite what the rankings say, this is far from being a marquee series in the fans' minds. The only time Sri Lanka have played here, more than two decades ago, India responded to a good total with the highest-ever score made on an Indian pitch. Sri Lanka smashed that record last week, but Sangakkara and his men will hope that they can go beyond mere batting records over the next five days.

As for India, they need to rediscover the inspiration and the spirit that they showed against Australia a year ago. So much will depend on the 22 yards and the smattering of grass that's on top of it. At least for now.