Sri Lanka's 170-run defeat in Galle has opened up the series and also exposed areas of concern for the home side. Their opening batsmen failed to provide starts in three innings and their new-ball bowlers could not prevent Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir from rapidly building a platform. After the match, their captain Mahela Jayawardene raised both issues so the leadership is aware of the problems, though solutions are a different ball game.
Faced with a target of 307, it was imperative that Sri Lanka started their case confidently. However, they slipped to 10 for 3 and never got back on track as the middle order, whose four hundreds in Colombo had hidden lack of a strong opening partnership, finally crumbled.
Michael Vandort and Malinda Warnapura added 7, 4 and 4 in three innings, with Vandort failing all three times. Warnapura got a hundred in Colombo and 66 in the first innings in Galle to continue a strong season but, against India, Vandort's vulnerability was exposed. His uncertain footwork and his hard-handed stabs in both Tests against the moving ball resulted in several edges to the slip cordon.
An old-fashioned accumulator, Vandort has been consistent in the last six months. He has an average of 39.70 and four Test hundreds, including two against England, home and away. England found it tough to dislodge Vandort after he got he settled and his staunch resistance at the top provided a base for the middle-order. At the SSC, in December, Vandort had to steady the innings after two early wickets and he added 227 for the third wicket with Jayawardene. He was also involved in decent starts with Warnapura in the West Indies earlier this year.
"It's important we get a good start in any run chase," Jayawardene said. He backed Vandort after the Galle defeat, stressing the need for him to "hang in there for a while" and Sri Lanka are unlikely to change their combination. The only foreseeable replacements, Upul Tharanga and Mahela Udawatte, managed 33 runs between them in the practice match ahead of the first Test. Tharanga lost form after a prolific 2006 and was dropped from the team after poor performances against England while Udawatte is considered a one-day specialist. The P Saravanamuttu Stadium in Colombo, the venue for the series decider, is believed to offer assistance to the fast bowlers and India's new-ball attack, Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan, will once again test Vandort and Warnapura.
The lack of a fast new-ball operator is another worry for Sri Lanka for morning sessions at the PSS are often crucial. Sri Lanka were reduced to 86 for 5 by Makhaya Ntini in 2006 with Dale Steyn taking five in an innings. It was one of the rare occasions when pace dominated a Test in Colombo.
In the first two Tests, Sri Lanka missed a bowler like Lasith Malinga, who's able to deliver at 140kph in these conditions. Instead India's openers had to counter an ageing Chaminda Vaas and Nuwan Kulasekera, whose lack of pace and breach was evident. The pair averaged between 120 and 125kph in Colombo and bowled only 30 overs in a Test dominated by the spinners.
For Kulasekera, 20 overs in two innings at the SSC yielded one wicket - a needless shot from a gung-ho Virender Sehwag - and cost 67 runs. Vaas bowled ten overs in the first Test and took 0 for 50, his pace often dipping as low as 110kph. He did take two crucial wickets in the second innings of the second Test but Sehwag's was a loose shot and Sachin Tendulkar's waft outside the off stump was a reward for perseverance rather than incision.
Jayawardene suggested his team might consider "a quick bowler" like Ishant for the decider, someone who "creates a bit of bounce on these kinds of wickets." The ineffectiveness of Vaas and Kulasekara in Colombo had prompted the selectors to call up Dammika Prasad, who took 4 for 58 in the tour game. Prasad produced swing and lift to dismiss Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman in that match and on current form he appears the best option to partner Vaas. However, a source hinted that left-arm fast bowler Thilan Thushara, who played in West Indies in April this year, may be preferred over Prasad.
"You have a bad run in one game and you just can't point fingers and say this is bad," said Jayawardene. "If you keep chopping and changing, it is going to be a problem for us as well in the long run." Sri Lanka have mastered their home conditions and can be counted on to bounce back hard. However, they are weakest at the top and run the risk of conceding the early initiative to India.