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The Indian batsmen will have to deliver

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A VITAL COG: If Sachin Tendulkar gets to the record in one innings, he will have given his side the key to the Sri Lankan fortress that is the SSC Ground.
A VITAL COG: If Sachin Tendulkar gets to the record in one innings, he will have given his side the key to the Sri Lankan fortress that is the SSC Ground.

S. Ram Mahesh

Tendulkar starts 172 runs short of Brian Lara’s record for the most Test runs

Colombo: The Sinhalese Sports Club, or the SSC as it’s known in this sweltering, courteous capital city, has a reputation of being a Sri Lankan fortress — the host has dropped just one of 13 Tests here since July 2001, winning 10 in that period.

It certainly looks like one. The boundary walls, made of cracked stone and topped by bottle-glass shards, are impossibly high. A military band, in full uniform, plays sinister music at the high-security entranceway.

The only deviations from the image of invulnerability are the basins of green water which pass as moats, populated by fat, overlong goldfish, not crocodiles, and the ground itself — as pretty as anything you can hope for.

It’s here, at this old-world ground, that India, on Wednesday, will begin its campaign to unseat Sri Lanka. Anil Kumble’s men are aware of the enormity of the challenge as they approach the first of three Tests: Sri Lanka has won 11 of the 17 home series played since 2000; two of the four defeats came early in the phase when the side was in transition.

A lot of pride

“There’s a lot of pride involved with doing well at home,” said Mahela Jayawardene, the Sri Lankan captain. “We don’t want anyone else to come in and beat us here. We’ve grown up in these conditions, so we know how to play in them, but I think it’s the pride that drives us.”

Sri Lanka isn’t without tender spots, however. The opening batsmen, Michael Vandort and Malinda Warnapura, aren’t soft touches, but they provide a vulnerable point of entry.

Sanath Jayasuriya’s retirement from Test cricket has rid India of a chillingly scary foe, and Kumble acknowledged the advantage. “It helps when Sanath isn’t there, he’s a big-match player,” said the Indian captain. “The last Test series (played in India in 2005), he wasn’t there, and you know the result (2-0 to India).”

Opening battles, while important, aren’t everything — England won the opening session in each of the three Tests here late last year, but surrendered the series. India will have to contend with a capable batting line-up, led by Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara.

Jayawardene has scored more Test runs (2062) at the SSC than any batsman has on any other ground in the world. Sangakkara, since giving up the wicketkeeping gloves, has established himself as one of the finest batsmen in world cricket. Great mates since school, they bat well together, and share a subliminal understanding.

Biased towards batsmen

The conditions at the SSC service the batsmen more readily than the bowlers, particularly as the Test advances — instead of breaking up, the strip grows slower, promoting survival, while the heat and the humidity extract an expensive toll from any bowler foolhardy enough to attempt a prolonged spell.

The distribution of work will be crucial. Zaheer Khan, set to share the new ball with Ishant Sharma, is returning to international cricket after a bruised heel forced him out of the series in Australia. The left-armer has trained hard to regain fitness. He tested himself briefly in the Indian Premier League, but the game-toughness required in a Test match is a different thing altogether.

Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, rehabilitated after slapgate, complete the four-man bowling attack — an attack the captain believes can take 20 wickets. “This time we have a lot of knowledge of playing here and also the quality,” said Kumble. “We have the balance in attack as well, and that will be important.”

Opening partnership crucial

The famed Indian batting will need to pull its weight. Much rests on the opening pair. Virender Sehwag’s rate of scoring often emancipates the middle order. His partner, Gautam Gambhir, is making a comeback and will be up against Chaminda Vaas, who tormented the left-hander when the sides met in 2005. Gambhir has refashioned his technique since, and the contest will be one of many to look forward to.

Dinesh Karthik is an excellent addition at seven — he is particularly adept at forcing the pace when the ball isn’t coming on. His partnership with the lower-order, and the resistance they mount against Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis, tipped to make his Test debut, will be critical.

Sachin Tendulkar needs 172 runs to break Brian Lara’s record for the most Test runs. If the Indian master can do it in one innings, he will have given his side the key to the fortress.

The sides (from): Sri Lanka: Mahela Jayawardene (capt), Michael Vandort, Malinda Warnapura, Kumar Sangakkara, Thilan Samaraweera, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Prasanna Jayawardene (wk), Chaminda Vaas, Muttiah Muralitharan, Thilan Thushara, Ajantha Mendis, Nuwan Kulasekara, Chamara Kapugedera and Chamara Silva.

India: Anil Kumble (capt), Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, V.V.S. Laxman, Rohit Sharma, Dinesh Karthik (wk), Harbhajan Singh, Ishant Sharma, Zaheer Khan, R.P. Singh, Munaf Patel, Pragyan Ojha, and Parthiv Patel.

Umpires: Mark Benson and Billy Doctrove. Television umpire: Rudi Koertzen. Match referee: Alan Hurst

Hours of play (IST): 10.15 a.m. to 12.15 p.m., 12.55 p.m. to 2.55 p.m., and 3.15 p.m. till close.

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