Weakened bowling threatens India's chances
Sometimes some places inspire people. On their last Test tour, when India came to Galle, Harbhajan Singh and Ishant Sharma were two such inspired men. The batting had been destroyed in Colombo and, apart from Virender Sehwag, it had failed again in Galle. Harbhajan then produced perhaps his bowling effort of recent times, and Ishant followed it up with a match-winning burst in the sapping heat on the final afternoon.
Back to playing in front of the magnificent Galle Fort, India will need nothing less than similar inspiration from both men if they are to harbour any thoughts of winning this match, or any other in the series. There will be no Zaheer Khan here to guide Ishant, no Anil Kumble to block the other end for Harbhajan. On top of that, they will have to contend with a reinvented Tillakaratne Dilshan and a more stable Sri Lankan batting line-up.
Apart from Harbhajan, who will be hoping he doesn't get another bout of fever overnight, the rest of the Indian attack has played only 26 Tests. Out of them, Abhimanyu Mithun, a favourite right now ahead of Munaf Patel, will be making his debut, and Pragyan Ojha, ahead of Amit Mishra who had a horrible tour game, has played only one Test.
Not since the Kanpur Test in April 2008 against South Africa, when Ishant, Sreesanth, Harbhajan and Piyush Chawla were the bowlers, have India played such an inexperienced bowling attack. And this is no one-off Test: there will be no reinforcements during the series. And this is no bowlers' heaven like Kanpur was. And in Sri Lanka's humidity, this is as much a physical test as it is of skill.
Apart from that lack of experience, at the heart of India's problems is the lack of swing bowlers. Both Zaheer and Sreesanth swing the ball; neither of Ishant, Mithun and Munaf is a specialist swing bowler. They are not bad bowlers, but Sri Lanka is not the ideal place for their hit-the-deck style. In the tour game, Chanaka Welegedara, the most impressive of fast bowlers on either side, got the ball to swing and removed Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid, and almost got Gautam Gambhir in one spell.
"It's not that our bowlers are not swing bowlers," MS Dhoni said. "[But] their strength is bowling back of a length on the off stump. But it depends on the conditions. If you're a good Test bowler, you have to vary your length. And Ishant has done that in the past. Depending on whether we are playing in India or Australia, he has varied his length, so a lot depends on what kind of wicket you get and what time of the day you're bowling."
There is also the small issue of the physical weakness Harbhajan will experience after the flu that kept him out of action almost throughout the tour. Dhoni, though, sounded confident of the part Harbhajan would play in the game. "He's a bit weak, and that's what happens when you come out of the flu," Dhoni said. "He spent some time bowling today, and he is batting right now as we speak in the press conference, so we are hoping that he will be 100% fit for the game."
Dhoni may have sounded positive about other aspects, but he was not at all pleased with the 36 no-balls that the Indians bowled in the tour game in Colombo. "That's definitely a big worry because if you get a wicket in Test matches, especially on flat tracks, and that's a no-ball, you have only yourself to blame," he said. "Hopefully we can reduce the number. If we can get it down to zero, that's the best we can do, but the amount of no-balls we bowled were quite a few. And surprisingly even the spinners bowled a lot of no-balls." The chief culprit, Mishra, who overstepped 17 times, is not likely to play in Galle.
Given the lack of experience, swing, and discipline (going by how they went in the tour game), India have it all stacked against them on the bowling front. Needless to say, it will also put extra pressure on the batsmen. Playing at home, the beast called Sri Lankan cricket preys on such weaknesses. At the end of three back-to-back Tests, India will have done really well to survive this test.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo