Sri Lanka v India, ODI series, 2008 August 22, 2008

Top-order batsmen hold the key

Unlike India's top order, Sri Lanka's wears a settled look © AFP

After two low-scoring games in Dambulla, the teams move to three straight day-night contests at the Premadasa, and the statistics suggest what happens in the rest of the series could lie in the starts given by the top-order batsmen.

In 60 day-night games, Nos 1-3 average 35.78 per wicket, that figure falling to 29.84 for the next three in the line-up. Sanath Jayasuriya is the leading run-getter at the Premadasa - his 2212 is only 252 short of the record for most at a single stadium - followed by Marvan Atapattu, another top-order bat. Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag have also scored big here - Tendulkar's aggregate of 872 here is the most for any Indian batsmen at a venue outside of Sharjah.

With the advent of Powerplays teams pack their top order with their most instinctive - and destructive - stroke players. Unlike India, who have major injury woes and are searching for rhythm, Sri Lanka are settled, with Jayasuriya and Kumar Sangakkara in their top three. Sangakkara feels the responsibility will be on the top order. "If one of them bats into the 40th over and beyond, the side is going to get a large score," he told Cricinfo. "That is the kind of attitude that top-order players should carry into a match. A team then has one player who they can bat around and it gives the late middle-order a chance to attack. It is a foundation on which to build a huge score."

The Premadasa has hosted 81 one-day internationals and is a traditional one-day pitch that offers runs for the batsmen and purchase for the spinners. The pitch favours the batsmen more than Dambulla did, which should please both sides. The average runs per wicket is 29.33, scored at 4.61 an over, which equates to 230.5 in 50 overs. Teams that have won the toss and opted to bat first have won 32 times and lost 22.

Beating Sri Lanka at home has always been tough, but it's been even harder in day-night matches, and especially those played the Premadasa. In a line-up without Tendulkar and Sehwag, India are searching for adequate replacements at the top. Gautam Gambhir is likely to return but Virat Kohli has looked scratchy in his three innings on tour when thrust into the opening slot. Irfan Pathan didn't fire when given the chance, leaving S Badrinath as a potential opener. He's never opened in limited-overs domestic cricket but is a compact player and confident against pace.

With a spin attack comprising Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis, it would not be a bad option for India's best batsmen to get their eye in against the medium-pacers. That could mean a promotion to No. 3 for Yuvraj Singh (a better option than straightaway exposing his weakness against quality spin) or Mahendra Singh Dhoni (who seems a good anchor for the rest to play around, rather than leave himself for a recovery act).

Both sides played six batsmen and five bowlers in the second game on a two-paced Dambulla track but such were the conditions that the batsmen were uncertain of when to play their shots. At the start of both matches the ball was doing a fair bit and it was hard for the batsmen to get into rhythm. "It was a very confusing time for both teams," Sangakkara said. "None of them really came to terms with how the pitch was playing."

One-day cricket was irreversibly changed 14 years ago when India, chasing 143 to beat New Zealand in Auckland, sent Tendulkar to open. A few years later Jayasuriya's revved-up approach to the same task powered Sri Lanka's successful World Cup campaign and took pinch-hitting to a new level. Tendulkar is back in India nursing an injured elbow, but Jayasuriya will pad up to open the innings. A good opening shot by either side may well close down the series.

Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo