Galle pitch dominates discussion on eve of Sri Lanka-India Test

The first Test between Sri Lanka and India commences in Galle on Tuesday with both sides anxious about the pitch and keen to reverse disconcerting trends: Sri Lanka have not won a Test series for 16 months and India have not won a Test series overseas since their last victory against Sri Lanka in August 1993.

Sanath Jayasuriya ducked into a short ball in practice this morning and was cut behind the ear. He may need a stitch, but will be fine to play tomorrow. He knows that both he as captain and Sri Lanka as a team need to win against India after failing to win their last four series.

He identified the Sri Lankan batsmen as the key to success: "Our record has not been good in Test matches recently, but if the batsmen apply themselves and put runs on the board, like they did under pressure in the one-day series, then we have a very good chance."

On paper, Sri Lanka go into the three-Test series as favourites by virtue of the fact that they start with a full-strength side. India, meanwhile, have lost four key players through injury Sachin Tendulkar (toe), VVS Laxman (knee), Anil Kumble (shoulder) and Ashish Nehra (groin).

Sri Lanka will also be boosted by an enviable Test record in Galle, where they have won three of the five Test matches by an innings. Australia survived in 1999 because of the weather and the only time they were defeated was by Pakistan last year.

Traditionally, however, the pitch has favoured the spinners, who have taken 80 per cent of the wickets to fall. In 1997 Sri Lanka even opened the bowling with left arm spinner Niroshan Bandaratillake but this time we can expect greater assistance for the fast bowlers.

The Sri Lankan Board requested livelier pitches for this series and when the covers were pulled off the square this morning, they revealed a pitch with a distinctly greenish hue. The grass is long and the base is harder than the normal Galle surface.

Jayasuriya admitted that he had "never seen so much grass on a Sri Lankan wicket," but he supports the rationale: "I think it is a good thing that it will help us when we play abroad. We have been practicing on seaming wickets for the last two months and the players can now cope with that."

John Wright appeared concerned, saying: "It's one of those situations that are a little hard to predict and it may depend on overhead conditions. Certainly it is a lot drier than it was yesterday. It's an interesting one, but at the end of the day it's how well you play on it that counts."

Sourav Ganguly pointed out hopefully that "it might be a good wicket" before adding: "We cannot be sure as to how it's going to play until we see a couple of balls on it tomorrow. There is a lot of grass, but there may not be much pace."

The Indian captain admitted: "It's going to be a good challenge for the batsmen and the seamers who need to maintain the correct length."

The last time the pitch was favourable to the seam bowlers Pakistan overwhelmed Sri Lanka with a four pronged pace attack to win a three- Test series last year. So the Sri Lankan strategy is a high risk one, especially in the first match of a short tour, as it will be hard to come back with just a two-day recovery period

Indeed, whilst the heavy grass covering may yet prove deceptive, there is a fear that this pitch will offer too much lateral movement and will make the result a lottery. Certainly the toss becomes interesting. Traditionally, captains have batted first in Galle; this time they may be wary of doing so.

Don't forget the twirly men though. The pitch may not crumble by the end of the second day, but Muttiah Muralitharan and Harbhajan Singh will still be quite a handful. In fact, both off spinners will be encouraged by the promise of some extra bounce and zip. Too often in the past has the Galle pitch been so slow that the cricket has been attritional. Harbhajan will be encouraged further by the possibility of five left-handers in the top seven.

Sri Lanka look to have the edge in the fast bowling department. The attack is spearheaded by Chaminda Vaas, who bowled so impeccably against England earlier this year, with Dilhara Fernando and Ruchira Perera, the fastest bowlers on show, to back him up.

Ganguly announced today that they would also be playing three fast bowlers. Javagal Srinath will team with Zaheer Khan with the new ball and Harvinder Singh and Venkatesh Prasad are competing for the third seamer's slot.

No one doubts that India do have a competent fast bowling attack, but the pertinent question is whether they have the batsmen to counter good pace bowling on a sporting surface. Without Tendulkar and Laxman, the batting line-up looks thin and much will depend upon Rahul Dravid and Ganguly.

The injuries have forced India to fiddle with their batting order. Sadagopan Ramesh and Shiv Sunder Das are nailed on certainties as the openers. Dravid can be expected to move up the order, probably to the No four position, with Ganguly likely to bat at No five. The wristy Mohammad Kaif earns a welcome opportunity at No three and Hemang Badani will bat at No six.

Sri Lanka's batting has been the source of conjecture throughout the week, but the management has finally settled on a top six of Sanath Jayasuriya, Marvan Atapattu, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Hashan Tillakaratne and Russel Arnold.

The point of conjecture is whether the number seven position should go to wicket keeper Romesh Kaluwitharana or fast bowling all rounder Suresh Perera. A final decision is only likely to be taken tomorrow.