India's batsmen look to set the record straight
There has to be something about Sri Lanka. Over the last 11 years, neither of Rahul Dravid (on his third tour here in that duration), Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman (on their second trips), or Sourav Ganguly (who toured twice) has scored a Test century.
They have scored centuries - big ones too - in seaming conditions, on turning pitches, against the SG ball, against the Kookaburra, against the Duke. But not in Sri Lanka - not for more than a decade. Virender Sehwag is the only man to have avoided what seems a big aberration for one of the best batting line-ups of our time. It's a simple equation for the bowlers who are not India's biggest strength: they need runs on board to apply pressure, and if they are bowling first they need a solid response from the famed batting line-up.
The team knows that's where it messed up in the Galle Test, which it had no business losing after close to one-and-a-half days were lost to rain, despite Lasith Malinga and Muttiah Muralitharan. India's bowling attack was so weak on paper, especially with Harbhajan Singh recovering from flu, that whatever India managed from them was a bonus. It was the batsmen who were supposed to keep India afloat, especially after they lost the toss and the Sri Lankans, with characteristic ruthlessness, ground the attack down.
Batting in Sri Lanka comes with unique challenges. Not least the humid conditions, which demand fitness and strength to bat long enough for centuries, and then some more to convert them into big ones, like the Sri Lankans do. Still, all among the frontline Indian batsmen have played enough long innings to suggest that losing concentration in physically demanding conditions should not be that big an issue.
The pitches, too, are different from other subcontinental surfaces. "The pitches here are probably difficult to score than in India," Kumar Sangakkara said. "If the track gets flat there, it stays flat for a very long time." MS Dhoni tends to agree. He says spin and wear and tear invariably become factors third day onwards, and the evening session usually brings some assistance for the pace bowlers.
Also India have managed to catch Murali and Chaminda Vaas, and then Murali and Ajantha Mendis, at their best on their last two tours. "We have, as a group of bowlers, attacked Indian batsmen really well," Mahela Jayawardene, Sri Lanka's captain on one of those tours, said. "Viru [Sehwag] is exceptional, but there are other batsmen who bat really well, but haven't got hundreds. You look at this line-up, and it is remarkable that we have given hundreds only to one batsman. Overall we have had some gameplans, and executed those gameplans really well."
Going into the first Test of this tour, the batsmen were expected to set that record straight, given there was no Mendis and that Murali had been in lean form leading up to the series. That was not to be.
"The general thinking is we could have batted a lot better than what we did in Galle," Dhoni said. "We are trying to rectify the problems. We have shaped up well. We had a day off, then two really good practice sessions. We got centre-wicket practice today, so most of the batsmen and the bowlers got the best out of it. The preparation level has been good. The dressing-room atmosphere is back to normal."
Mendis will be coming back for the second Test, but there will be neither Murali nor Malinga. Mendis, too, doesn't hold the same threat as he did two years ago. Or that seems to be the feeling right now. "From an unknown quantity, from a player who you didn't know much about, he [Mendis] is more of a player now as an individual. [You know] what are his strengths, what his weaknesses are," Dhoni said. "I think it will be an interesting face-off between the batsmen and the bowler because our batting line-up is one of the best, so definitely they will try to do well against him, especially because the last time we were here, most of our batsmen couldn't read all his deliveries or couldn't do as well as expected."
Also the SSC track, which many a batsman enjoys, gives the Indian batting line-up an opportunity to set that record straight. It is about much more than personal records right now; their bowlers need those runs badly to get some respite on a tough tour.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo