World Cup the focus in leisurely tri-series
In its dual role as commercial hub of the North Central Province and site of the holy Golden Cave Temple, a UNESCO world heritage monument, Dambulla has long attracted a varied set of visitors. In 2010, the town seems out to add aficionados of the one-day game to that bunch, laying out 14 ODIs for them in fewer than three months, a feast even Sharjah didn't offer during its salad days as a cricketing venue.
The tickets are cheap, the weather is reasonable, and the pitch isn't one of those featherbeds which make bowlers despair over their choice of career, but bussed-in school kids made up a chunk of the sparse crowd during the Asia Cup in June, and things aren't likely to be too different for the upcoming tri-series.
The players involved won't be bothered by that, though. The teams will be using the tournament to figure out their combinations for next year's World Cup in the subcontinent. India and Sri Lanka had talked of building up to cricket's showpiece tournament during the Asia Cup but could not zero in on a settled batting order. The tri-series will be New Zealand's first one-day tournament in five months, and gives several of their newcomers a chance to test themselves in conditions alien to those at home.
For what it's worth, the tri-series could also cause a major reshuffling in the one-day rankings. Australia are runaway leaders with a 14-point lead, but the next five teams are separated by only seven points. India are second, but that spot could be taken by either New Zealand (now fourth) or Sri Lanka (now sixth) by the end of the tournament.
Teams will find it simpler to capture that second spot if their captains win the toss often. The floodlights at Dambulla are a bit dodgy and, more importantly, the pitch assists bowlers more under lights than in the afternoon, making the toss more vital than it should be. Sri Lanka had been the dominant team in the league phase of the Asia Cup, but they lost the toss and the final partly due to the lavish movement the Indian bowlers extracted from a previously benign track.
In a time when three-day gaps between Tests are the norm, even if teams have to travel to a different venue, the tri-series follows a leisurely schedule despite being played entirely in Dambulla. There's a two-day break between each match, giving teams ample time to visit the many archeological heritage sites in Sri Lanka's famed Cultural Triangle.
The home side is the only one close to full strength and should start as favourites. After looking good for much of their previous two series, Kumar Sangakkara's team finished poorly in both and were left with only the moderate reward of a shared Test series, something Sri Lanka will want to redress.
Their batting order is settled till No. 5, but the Sri Lankan think-tank is still figuring out their best players for the remaining slots. With Thilina Kandamby having fallen out of favour, Thilan Samaraweera, Chamara Kapugedera and the recalled Chamara Silva are battling for two places. The absence of Muttiah Muralitharan means the tournament is a chance for the spinners Suraj Randiv, Ajantha Mendis and Rangana Herath to make cases for a permanent place.
Sri Lanka must be among MS Dhoni's favourite destinations for one-day cricket: his captaincy record in the country is four titles in four tournaments. Adding a fifth could prove difficult, though, because India are without four first-choice players - Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan - which leaves Dhoni with a very young team: 11 members of the squad are 25 years or younger. The good news for him is that most of the youngsters have played plenty of cricket in Sri Lanka and are familiar with the Dambulla pitch as well.
The pace attack, which was ineffective during the Tests, is beefed up by the return of Ashish Nehra and Praveen Kumar, but India's slow-bowling combination will be interesting to watch. Pragyan Ojha had a successful Test at the P Sara Oval, but with Ravindra Jadeja making the XI for his all-round skills, will India go in with two left-arm spinners (in addition to the part-time bowling of Yuvraj) or will offspinner R Ashwin get an extended run?
New Zealand Cricket has smartly lined up matches in all three World Cup host nations in the run-up to the 2011 tournament. The absence of match-winners, such as Daniel Vettori, Brendon McCullum and Jesse Ryder, means New Zealand are a long shot for the tri-series title, but with so many players with so little experience of the subcontinent, they could be the team that benefits the most from the tri-series. The other plus for Ross Taylor's side is that, while the other two teams have only a few days and no matches to switch from Test to one-day mode, New Zealand have tuned up for the tri-series with two convincing warm-up wins in Sri Lanka.
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo