A rivalry in search of a 'Big Match' aura
They love the "Big Match" here in Sri Lanka. The Royal-Thomian - the annual cricket match between the Royal College Colombo and S Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia - is the best known but it is not the only one. Any rough calculation of the number of Big Matches Sri Lanka hosts (for both cricket and rugby) could be arrived at, it is argued, by dividing the number of posh schools by half. The idea of the Big Match involves both an annual occasion and, just as meaningfully, enriching the historical tradition of a rivalry.
Test matches between Sri Lanka and India, on now for the past 33 years, have never risen to any kind of Big Match status, either as occasion or rivalry. Perhaps because 15 of their 35 Tests have been drawn. Their last set of Test skirmishes featured nine Test matches between July 2008 and July 2010; in the same period, they had also played 26 ODIs and four T20Is. Never mind neighbourly love, this kind of excessive familiarity can only breed utter tedium.
In the time that has elapsed since then, they have run into each other in the finals of two of the big three (excuse the pun) ICC events played. Still, a five-year gap between Tests does seem a bridge too far. This is an age derided for excessive cricket, but during the time India and Sri Lanka have turned Test match attention off each other, Virat Kohli has made his Test debut and become India captain.
Perhaps the time spent apart has, like in any testy relationship, helped clean the slate of all past stalemates. Barring Kumara Sangakkara in the final lap of his Test career and Harbhajan Singh, given a late second wind after 100 Tests, there are no heavyweight names on either side of the roster. An entire generation full of luminous jumbo numbers, e.g His Holiness Hundred Hundreds and His Excellency Eight Hundred, is now tucked into history books.
Ravi Shastri described the series, starting in a grey but festive Galle, as "young playing young." Except Sri Lanka's young are slightly more experienced and are playing at home. In these five years, the teams have followed similar paths: Sri Lanka have won 11 of 43 Tests, including four away from home, with their first-ever series win in England, under Angelo Mathews. India in the interim have won 17 of 48, including three away from home, and came away with their first-ever drawn series in South Africa (1-1) just before the 2011 ICC World Cup. Fans on either side can snigger equally about the other.
India and Sri Lanka do not share any of that big-brother-little-brother jollity that older Test nations heap on younger ones. Utterly disparate sizes and resources notwithstanding, their Test cricket shares a similar contemporary narrative - of wanting to shake off the albatross of struggling to put together consistent overseas wins. This at a time when Pakistan have become the most successful Asian team in terms of away victories, the latest, most riveting in Sri Lanka.
Sangakkara lists not winning a series in India as one of the regrets of his career. Kohli produced an amused, yeah-yeah-yeah kind of smile when he was told, yet again, that India had not won a Test series in Sri Lanka for 22 years. Mathews looked mighty delighted when he was informed about the same and grinned, "I actually didn't know about that."
Indian stories about the 1993 series victory - a single win at the SSC - involve reporters waving Indian flags from the press box in support of Mohammad Azharuddin's team because of a series of bewildering decisions by the umpires. Sri Lankans scoff at the umpiring horror stories and cite, what about Arjuna's four lbws in Pakistan? Sanjay Manjrekar remembers his young Mumbai team-mates Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli returning from the 1993 series raving about this new spinner they had played in the final Test. His name? Murali, that's what everyone called him. Just Murali.
The increase of internet hostilities between the fans of the two teams is far removed from what players on both sides share. Kohli, who will play in his first Test in Sri Lanka, said what had struck him most about the hosts was their competitiveness. "They might not be as expressive as some of the other teams in the world but the intent, the kind of aggression they have in their body language is pretty evident. You can see that hunger in them … all the established players and even the youngsters. They want to come out and perform and do well and keep Sri Lanka right up there in world cricket."
In big tournaments, he said, "Sri Lanka are always right up there. You might not count them as favourites when the tournament starts but they are always in the semis or the finals. That's a credit to their attitude."
Sangakkara said the Sri Lanka-India contests formed part of a "great" rivalry, a "tussle between some great players… you know you are in for a very, very tough time." While he said he had noticed similarities in styles of individual players, he described Sri Lanka's approach as "slightly more carefree".
"Our brand of cricket has been that since 1995, and we have also banked probably a bit more on pace during the times when India was banking a bit more on spin," he said. The cycle though, he said may have come "full circle," paying a compliment to India's pace attack, and mentioning, "a different crop of young batsmen whose attitudes are different," closer to the young men he will play alongside in the last two Tests of his career. He said maybe he would establish "if those styles are more similar than before."
What Sri Lanka v India needed, he said, was to "develop a context and a meaningful rivalry and a meaningful trophy." Something that could turn iconic. "For Asia as well, that will be a great step forward."
There could be no better time and place to start afresh on Sri Lanka v India here in Galle, with its fresh sea breeze and its air of constant renewal. The day before the start of the series was marked by passages of rain - frequent, persistent not about to die away. Yet, Galle has often been able to produce Test matches that, despite interruptions, tend to snap, crackle and pop. It is what just the rivalry needs. Something that looks and feels like a Big Match.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo