After India’s disappointing defeat in the Test series, the onus is on their one-day team to ensure they grab a slice of the pie before the tour of Sri Lanka ends. The signs are that it will not be easy, as they will be up against the spin duo of Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis, bowlers who have completely dominated India over the last couple of months. Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag were the most successful batsmen in the Tests, and they hold the key to ensuring that Mahendra Singh Dhoni wins his first ODIs series as captain in Sri Lanka.
After the high of the Commonwealth Bank Series title in Australia, India were not at their best in the Kitply Cup and Asia Cup, a fact Dhoni has readily admitted. In the finals of both tournaments, India’s main men didn’t step up when the pressure was on. They lost the Kitply Cup final by 25 runs and the Asia Cup final by 100 runs. The pressure was created by the bowlers conceding over 300, and the batsmen failed to handle a stiff asking rate in a big match.
The bowling has been a worry for India in the past, which is probably why Dhoni indicated India were looking at playing five bowlers in the first ODI in Dambulla. The ground also favours spin, which means India will play both Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha. If Sanath Jayasuriya gets off to a start, these two spinners will have a huge role to play: the Asia Cup final showed that restricting Jayasuriya in the early overs was possible, but once he got his eye in he was unstoppable. With Harbhajan not having played one-day cricket since March 2008 and Ojha just three matches old, India might still need the services of Yuvraj Singh and Virender Sehwag despite playing five specialist bowlers.
Like the last two tournaments India’s batting is reliant on a few batsmen with limited experience. Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma have played 68 ODIs between them, and they have been the main candidates to bat at No. 3. Part of Dhoni’s method of finding stability has been to experiment at the No. 3 and No. 6 slots: India have used Raina, Sharma and Yuvraj Singh at one-down in the last two tournaments, but Raina has scored a couple of fifties at that slot and, barring a major loss of form, will be batting at that position in this series.
India missed the big names in the Asia Cup, but Dhoni is a firm believer in experimenting to find the right combination. “If you have players with more then 250 ODIs to their credit I don’t think that makes a lot of difference,” he said. “After 100 ODIs you have a sense of what’s required. Its not like we will really miss some of the players but it will show up in how the guys coming up perform and adapt to the conditions.”
India can take confidence from the win in the warm-up match against a Sri Lankan XI side comprising ten international players, but this is a whole new ball game. In the Test series, Mendis averaged 22.80 against India’s four famed middle-order batsmen, with ten wickets, while Muralitharan conceded only 26.25 for each of his eight wickets against them. None of those players are in the ODI squad, but there is nothing to suggest that their replacements will find it any easier.
The performances of India’s openers, therefore, take on added importance because they played Mendis well in the Tests. Gambhir was the most consistent batsman in the Tests, blending exceptional footwork with positive strokeplay. Sehwag handled Mendis extremely well in Galle, even hitting him out of the attack at one stage.
“In any form of cricket the start is very important but that doesn’t mean all the pressure is on the openers to give you a good start,” said Dhoni. “Sehwag is the sort who takes a bit of risk at times. Whenever he gets us that start we have a fair chance of winning. He’s in very good nick, so is Gambhir. Both played well in the Tests so they have some added responsibility on them.”
Added responsibility or not, India have reason to worry about how their batsmen will handle Mendis, who ran rings around them in the Asia Cup final. Dhoni chose not to admit it, but Sri Lanka have a distinct psychological hold over India through Mendis.
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo