Dambulla plays host to latest subcontinental ODI tussle
A new season of one-day cricket on the subcontinent kicks off on Saturday in Dambulla, a market town surrounded by some of Sri Lanka's most ancient heritage sites. But while the idyllic lakeside setting harks back to the past, drawing in tourists by the thousand each year, the tournament opener provides a fascinating glimpse of the future, as India try to plug enormous holes in their top order and Sri Lanka experiment with a new opening partner for Sanath Jayasuriya.
The unavailability of Sachin Tendulkar (elbow injury) for the entire tournament and Sourav Ganguly, at least for the first two games after his ICC match ban was reduced from six to four games after much legal huffing and puffing, leaves India in new territory, as they will be shorn of 23,587 ODI runs and 618 caps'-worth of experience. India have rarely missed both at the same time in the last ten years and their absence has triggered animated debate as to the likely shape of the new top order.
The safe money is being put on VVS Laxman jumping up the order to partner Virender Sehwag. This is the entirely sensible and boring option that will balance the top six. But there are still many secretly hoping that the younger and longer curls of MS Dhoni accompany Sehwag to the middle. It would be a high-risk but potent alliance that would have the potential for creating major headaches for Marvan Atapattu, who will be missing Chaminda Vaas and Nuwan Zoysa, his most experienced pace bowlers.
While the ball is hard in the first 15 overs, India have their best chance of stamping their authority on the game. The Sri Lankan injuries mean that the pace attack now has a fragile look about it: Lasith Malinga is exciting and unusual with his round-arm action, but far from polished after just four matches; Farveez Maharoof is struggling to find his best bowling form; Dilhara Fernando is under pressure after a long layoff; and Dilhara Lokuhettige, the new allrounder, is untested.
In such circumstances, playing Dhoni - the one batsman to click into form on the tour thus far - might be a gamble worth taking. But the old hands who follow India around the world with their laptops, the people who decode the team's poker-faced press conference sound-bites for a living, say Dhoni is likely to appear in the middle order with Rahul Dravid, the new captain, at No. 3 and Mohammad Kaif at No 4. Yuvraj Singh's position at No. 3 in both practice games is considered a red herring - although Greg Chappell has mentioned 'flexibility' so many times this week that we should mentally prepare ourselves for the unexpected.
India are also set to give an international lifeline to Jai Prakash Yadav, a 30-year-old seam bowling allrounder who played the last of his two ODIs against West Indies in 2002. He disappeared for a couple of years but strong performances in the 2004-05 domestic season have given him hope of a second coming. With Ganguly set to return for India's third game next week, he may need to make an impression fast.
The Dambulla pitch started its international life in 2001 as a batsmen's hellhole; the ball dancing around for the pace bowlers and spinners. But in the years since the pitch has bedded down and runs flowed last evening when an Atapattu XI tussled with a Jayawardene XI. However, there is enough help for the seamers to persuade both team's to play three frontline quicks. India will have to choose between Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble once again.
Sri Lanka, too, have been giving their opening combination some deep thought. Tom Moody, their new coach, has made it clear that the time has come for more stability at the top. In the past 17 months Jayasuriya has had five different partners. But Sri Lanka believe that may have unearthed the answer, Upul Tharanga, a wispy left-hander blessed with sweet timing and an array of strokes. His classy 35 in the practice match shone with potential and he is certain to play.
The middle order has a familiar feel with Atapattu, Sangakkara and Jayawardene ensconced in their normal positions. Tillakaratne Dilshan's perky batting during the Test series against West Indies should be enough for him to get the nod over Russel Arnold, who has been pushing hard for a recall with stacks of runs for the A team. Upul Chandana will then occupy the pivotal No 7 position with Dilhara Lokuhettige set for debut after some lusty blows last night and a mean spell of seamers. Sri Lanka are desperate to unearth a seam bowling allrounder and he is the latest to be tried.
With Muttiah Muralitharan, back to full fitness and good form during the West Indies series, and Malinga already pencilled in then Fernando and Farveez Maharoof will sweat over the final place. Fernando's greater cutting edge with the ball and reputation as a wicket-taker may put his nose in front, but it's a close-run contest because Maharoof, in his short career, has shown and cool head under a pressure and Atapattu needs strong minds without Vaas and Zoysa. Maharoof also offers more with the bat.
Sri Lanka (likely) 1 Sanath Jayasuriya, 2 Upul Tharanga, 3 Marvan Atapattu, 4 Kumar Sangakkara (wk), 5 Mahela Jayawardene, 6 Tillakaratne Dilshan, 7 Upul Chandana, 8 Dilhara Lokuhettige, 9 Muttiah Muralitharan, 10 Dilhara Fernando, 11 Lasith Malinga.
India (likely) 1 Virender Sehwag, 2 VVS Laxman, 3 Rahul Dravid (Capt), 4 Mohammad Kaif, 5 MS Dhoni, 6 Yuvraj Singh, 7 Jai P Yadav, 8 Irfan Pathan, 9 Harbhajan Singh, 10 Zaheer Khan, 11 Lakshmipathy Balaji
Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent