Sri Lanka fret over batting order
For the past week, Sri Lanka has reflected on Kumar Sangakkara's legacy. On the eve of the deciding Test match, the team has found he has also left behind a slew of dilemmas. Sri Lanka know there is no possible substitute for Sangakkara's experience, but they do hope to scavenge together the runs he used to score. They hope to tickle the top order in just the right way, to collectively squeeze out those few additional runs.
The team has confirmed Upul Tharanga will replace Sangakkara in the XI. Though both are left-handers from Nondescripts Cricket Club, that is about where the similarities end. Where Sangakkara was Sri Lanka's sure thing, Tharanga is a man of glorious uncertainties, transitioning through lean trots and purple patches in a single over, the way most others do over long careers.
Tharanga is among the more polarising figures in Sri Lanka cricket, but recently he has made a good Test-match case for himself. He top-scored at the SSC against Pakistan last year, but was then dropped. He then made 46 and 48 on a demanding Pallekele surface upon his return to the team.
Sri Lanka's problem now is where to fit him in the order. Tharanga is an opener by trade, but Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva have those slots sealed up. The team batted Tharanga at No. 3 in the last series against Pakistan, but Lahiru Thirimanne has long been groomed to take over Sangakkara's spot, and his ODI returns suggest the top three is where Thirimanne is most productive.
"At the moment we've got so many questions hanging around," captain Angelo Mathews said of the batting order. "Tharanga has to come in definitely. In the last match he played, he hit a couple of 45s. He went out only because Sangakkara came back for the India series.
"We are giving the batting order a bit more thought. We've got different characters in the team - some are quite slow, some are very attacking. You've got to slot them out in those positions where the team is benefiting at the end. You need to give it a bit more thought and we'll try and find the best position for those individuals. "
Sri Lanka have more decisions to make lower down the order. Jehan Mubarak has played decent supporting hands in three of his six innings since his recall, but for all that is no closer to cementing his position in the side. Sri Lanka will be tempted to replace him with the dynamic Kusal Perera, who was seen practicing his wicket keeping in the approach to this Test. If Kusal does take the gloves, Dinesh Chandimal may be free to move further up the order, though that option is not itself without risk. Chandimal is scoring runs at no. 6 and 7, and has been effective in partnerships with tail-enders.
Kusal's Test debut has been seen as overdue by some, especially as the batsman had had an exceptional series against Pakistan A in May, then made two match-winning ODI contributions against the senior Pakistan side last month.
"You can't really find a perfect time to bring a player into the team," Mathews said of the decision to keep Kusal out of the XI so far. "There are seniors, there are guys who have played and you can't just chop and change them in one or two games. Sometimes you may not get the chance when you're in form. Sometimes you might have to play when you're rusty. You've got to test your character. Whenever he gets the opportunity I'm pretty sure that he'll come good. He's a young, exciting player. We're not afraid to take chances with that kind of player."
Whoever plays, all Sri Lanka's batsmen will aim to decipher India's spinners, who have so far left the entire top order groping at the ball, and at excuses. Mathews has said that his team would seek to attack R Ashwin. Amit Mishra, who has 12 wickets at 12.75 in the series, will be approached the same way, he suggested.
"No matter who is bowling, our aim to score runs. Even yesterday we had a discussion as a batting group. We always trust that no matter who the bowler is, and however well he's bowling, if he gives us a chance to get runs, we should do that. We know Ashwin bowled well in the last two matches. Mishra and the seamers were also bowling well. Whoever it is, we'll play them positively."
Batsmen from both teams have been embarrassed by spin so far in the series, but if they have arrived at the SSC expecting to have an easier time, they may be surprised. The club is the home of Sri Lanka cricket's bourgeoisie, and for so long the SSC pitch was class warfare - pampered batsmen lording it over the bowling proletariat. Recently though, the bowlers' union has had a breakthrough. The pitch was relaid in 2013, and the bowlers have since had more luck at the venue.
Spotting some live grass on the track a day before the match, Mathews said his team "can't predict the pitch 100%" so would have to "play it by ear". Now that all the greats have taken their leave, he may be doing a lot of that while his new team comes together.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando