Sri Lanka's success at home over the last few years has largely been dependent on the performance of Rangana Herath. He has rarely failed to deliver and has ensured to carry the legacy set by his predecessor Muttiah Muralitharan. Since January 2012, Herath has taken 41% of Sri Lanka's Test wickets at home. He has 20 five-wicket hauls and seven 10-wicket hauls in this period. All other bowlers together have taken only five five-wicket hauls and one 10-wicket haul. Seventy-one percent of the wickets taken by Herath have come when Sri Lanka have won at home. During this period, he also became the fifth-most successful spinner in Tests. However, one of his toughest opponents has been India against whom he averages 41.62 from seven Tests - the worst against any opposition. His next-worst opposition has been England against whom he averages nearly 10 runs lesser at 32.35
When India toured Sri Lanka in 2015, Herath took 7 for 48 in the fourth innings of the first Test in Galle to help Sri Lanka beat India. However, he managed only eight wickets in the remaining four innings. India would be touring Sri Lanka with almost the same batting line-up as in 2015 and would be looking to deploy similar tactics that worked for them then. One strategy that helped India come back after the loss and clinch the series was their ability to negate the Herath threat after the Test loss in Galle. How did India tackle Herath after the dismal collapse in the first Test?
India's batsmen played a lot from the crease against Herath during the Galle Test which prevented them from scoring as well as helped the left-arm spinner pick up wickets. The Indian batsmen stepped down only 27 times against him and scored 19 runs. Herath finished with match figures of 7 for 115, conceding runs at a miserly rate of 2.12 runs per over.
After the Galle loss, India's batsmen possibly decided to be more aggressive against Herath. One indication of this was how they tried to upset his length and score off him by stepping down to him more often than they did so in the Galle Test. They also looked to be more decisive in their strokeplay while stepping down to Herath which reflected in their strike rate off these deliveries. In the first Test, India's batsmen scored only 19 runs off the 27 balls that they came down the pitch to Herath, whereas in the rest of the series they managed to score more freely, making 111 runs off just 94 balls. This strategy was one of the key changes that the Indian batsmen made to counter Herath who finished with figures of 8 for 350 and an economy rate of 3.39 in the rest of the series. In fact, they successfully used this plan against Tharindu Kaushal as well. The Indian batsmen scored 45 runs from 47 balls against Kaushal losing one wicket.
Rohit Sharma was particularly successful in pulling off this ploy against Herath. Numbers show that not only did he lead India's strategy of stepping down more often to Herath, he was also able to score runs off these deliveries. In the second and third Tests, Rohit stepped down to 25 of the 101 deliveries (once in four balls) that he faced from Herath, scoring 43 runs off them at a strike rate of 172.
Having seen Rohit successfully negate the Herath threat in the previous series, the Indian batsmen would possibly look to re-employ this plan against Sri Lanka's spinners right from the start of this series, provided the match situation and pitch conditions don't increase the inherent risk in adopting this strategy.