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News Analysis

India look to defy ghosts of past Galle defeats

India have grown in strength since their 2015 defeat in Galle, but they need to be clinical for sustained periods to take down Sri Lanka at what has become an impregnable fortress

India's players get together to celebrate a wicket, India v Australia, 4th Test, Dharamsala, 1st day, March 25, 2017

India have never won the first Test of a series in Sri Lanka  •  Associated Press

Galle Fort is a surreal place. It is unrecognisable from the time Test cricket first returned to Galle post-Tsunami. Every establishment inside the fort is now either a boutique restaurant or a hostel. Every second shop sells souvenirs and spices and coffee. The old corner shops that sold essentials, the mom and pop stores, have all but disappeared. The people who actually lived here have mostly gone, preferring the lease money they get from renting their houses out to tourism-based establishments.
When Test cricket first came back to Galle, the fort was like an actual village where actual people lived. It doesn't feel like Sri Lanka inside now. It is almost like you are on the set of some film based in the Mediterranean. The fort is not yet one of those Indian places that is out of bound for locals, but it is hard to imagine too many tourist-friendlier places in Asia. Metres outside the fort, though, is Sri Lankan cricket's fortress, which has, despite many charges from the tourists, remained largely impregnable.
Sri Lanka are a team in seemingly perpetual transition, which can give to the visiting sides an impression of friendliness, the kind seen in the fort. However, somehow they managed to find a way in Galle against India last time, after looking down and out.
Unlike inside the fort, one wrong turn here can take you into the wilderness. India have won in Galle before, but not when it is the first Test of the series. In fact India have never won the first Test of a series in Sri Lanka. India's last two opening defeats here in Galle are warning enough. In 2010, Virender Sehwag scored a dominating hundred before India fell apart. In 2015, India dominated for longer before Sri Lanka rose again.
India are a stronger side than they were in 2015. They have rediscovered Cheteshwar Pujara as a batsman, Ravindra Jadeja is back as a solid foil to R Ashwin, and the seam attack looks more menacing. Sri Lanka have gained Kusal Mendis, Dhananjaya de Silva, Asela Gunaratane and Dilruwan Perera, but they have lost Dhammika Prasad, Dinesh Chandimal and the confidence of Angelo Mathews as a batsman.
Sri Lanka will need more magic than the last time to remain competitive in this series. The waves are hitting their fortress higher and stronger than the last time. Since then, they have lost to Bangladesh at home, and came close to doing so against Zimbabwe.
Just remember the last day-and-a-half of their last Galle Test against India. They were so high on adrenaline they were bouncing off the walls. Chandimal played some blinding shots, sensational catches were taken, and every ball was an appeal when they bowled. India will need to deny them that state of mind. They will need to do what they did the last time around, but for longer. Just keep building that pressure, wave after wave. And be prepared if Sri Lanka suddenly find themselves in that roused state. Have a batsman deny them for longer when the ball starts turning. Have a bowler come up with new plans when somebody is playing a Kusal Mendis-like innings. As it is, India are making a slippery start because their openers are not available again.
The middle three, the only settled batsmen in the side, will have to shoulder responsibility, especially knowing how difficult opening has been in this country this decade. If they are bored of those magic periods of play to stay afloat, Sri Lanka will need to prey on the fact that there is still a question mark on the Indian batting when they are put under pressure by continued spin bowling.
There is a Test side struggling to stay afloat, hoping to use every trick it knows, every bit of familiarity with its own conditions, against a side that has progressively come closer to dominating them at home. Apart from that tussle, three of the best spinners of this decade, plus decent supporting spinners, will be on display over the next three Tests. Yet, there is hardly any palpable anticipation.
But that's how cricket in Galle is. You can be walking as if it is a normal day, but then suddenly chance upon the highest form of the game, and watch it for free for however long you can stand by the fence. If it catches your fancy, you can buy a ticket - and a beer - and watch it from the grass banks. Unfortunately, in the latest charge on the charms of Galle, SLC has decided to erect visual barriers to destroy one of the unique features of this singular venue. Now you can't watch from the ground level on the outside.
You can still watch from the fort rampart. The wall that stands between a cricketing fortress and a tourist haven, the wall where the winds of change have somehow hit and returned so far. The tourists might have taken over the fort, but outside Sri Lanka remains strong. In the coming week, there will be another charge made on that strength, a charge that could decide a series.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo