An Asian champion awaits
The precursor to the deciding final match of this fantastic Test series isn't in the same league as what transpired in Kolkata in 2001, but for India it's no less important. It has been seven years since they came back from 0-1 to win a three-match series, and that's all too annoying.
India have been in a 1-1 position before in recent years, most famously against Australia at home in 2001, against Sri Lanka away later that year, and in South Africa in January 2007. It's a mixed record; they followed up VVS Laxman's Kolkata heroics by taking the series 2-1 in Chennai; they crumbled against Sri Lanka in the SSC decider and went down to South Africa in Cape Town.
Now, against a professional Sri Lankan side with a proud home record to defend, India - who haven't won a series here since 1993 - again face a tough test. Anil Kumble has repeatedly stressed on India's ability to bounce back from defeat and the team can look back at a host of performances for inspiration - including John Wright's decision to show the Hollywood sport epic Remember the Titans during the series against Australia in 2001 - but now they need to break the mental lock that binds them when a series is levelled.
"In terms of confidence and strategy and preparation, we have done whatever we can to ensure we win this Test, and the series," said Anil Kumble. "We've done that once, against Australia in 2001, but that was in India. These are different conditions but all of us want to get everything right, go back home with a series win."
The conditions are indeed different but, in terms of the 1-1 equation, the series could not have asked for a better venue for the decider - the pitch at Colombo's P Saravanamuttu Stadium is reputed to be the truest in Sri Lanka.
History shows the PSS has traditionally assisted batsmen, fast bowlers and spinners alike. In 2002, when it hosted a neutral Test between Australia and Pakistan, Ricky Ponting scored a hundred, Shoaib Akhtar bowled a terrifying spell of fast bowling, taking five wickets for eight runs, including three in one over, and Shane Warne and Saqlain Mushtaq shared 19 wickets. In a 2006 thriller, Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn shared nine wickets, Muttiah Muralitharan hauled Sri Lanka back with seven in the second innings, and Mahela Jayawardene's 123 helped Sri Lanka chase 352. It was one of the most dramatic and gripping last-wicket wins.
"Over the years it's been a very sporting pitch," said Jayawardene. "A good batting track over the first three days and then some turn and bounce. It was a good chase [of 352 against South Africa in 2006] and everyone contributed. We lost nine wickets getting there but it was a sporting track and we had to really dig deep in that. It was a historic win for us coming against a big score and a quality pace attack. We won on the fifth day just before lunch or something, and so the match went all the way."
Four spinners have taken 51 of the 66 wickets to fall in this series but the pitch at the PSS suggests there will be something in it for the fast bowlers. Yesterday evening it resembled a concrete strip with a lot of grass on it; there was less grass on it today and it remains to be seen what the pitch will look like one the first morning, but both captains felt it would offer something for the fast bowlers.
Sri Lanka have responded by dropping Nuwan Kulasekara, whose lack of pace told in the first two Tests. They haven't made the choice between Dammika Prasad, who took 4 for 58 in the tour game, or left-arm fast bowler Thilan Thushara, who played in West Indies in April this year. "Both of them have good pace," noted Jayawardene, "but we will go back and have a chat with the selectors."
Neither of the first two Tests went into the fifth day and a five-day finish would be a compelling finale for a series which, despite what the scoreboard from the SSC suggests, had plenty of tension. Both teams go into this match determined to win, but for India, with all the talk of becoming No. 1, this Test could prove definitive.
"This is a good Test," said Jayawardene, not even considering the threat of losing a home series. "We've played some really good cricket this series and everyone's feeling each other out now. It's going to be an interesting one; everything to play for."
A series with all the trappings of a real Asian Test Championship finds itself tantalisingly poised going into the decider - and that's something both Indian and Sri Lankan cricket need.
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo