India Vs Sri Lanka, 4th ODI Match.
International cricket returns to the Eden Gardens - perhaps the finest cricket stadium in India - and that itself is a cause for celebration, never mind the state of the pitch or the result of the match. The Kolkata fans can heave a sigh of relief that whatever political circumnavigation had to be done has been done, and the Eden Gardens is no more persona-non-grata in the Tours and Fixtures Committees list of grounds.
India have gathered nice momentum in the series, but they go into a match which could potentially seal them the series without two towering presences in the middle order - Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni. Both of them have had stellar years in the ODI format, with Yuvraj averaging 39.15 at a strike rate of 95.95, and Dhoni averaging 70.47 at a strike rate of 85.57. That means that together they were scoring 110 runs in 20 overs on an average in every match in 2009 - and losing that kind of a jump-start in the middle overs is difficult to overcome for any team - to say nothing of the psychological damage they have caused countless opposition teams with their ability to clear the ropes almost at will.
However, the loss of these two batsmen, while severe, should not be crippling for India. Their top order batting is still formidable with a man who is currently the most destructive batsman in world cricket in Virender Sehwag, and a man who has more runs in every format of the game than any other batsman, and still shows no signs of his hunger abating in Sachin Tendulkar. And at one-drop is the man who has just outscored the legendary names alongside him in the batting line-up to emerge as India's top batsman in the year gone by in Gautam Gambhir. It will be interesting to see who Virender Sehwag sends in at the Number 4 slot, though it is likely to be Virat Kohli. However, Suresh Raina has also got a strong claim to come higher up the order, having delivered good performances whenever he's been pushed up the order, and also contributing valuable runs lower down.
India's bowlers delivered spectacularly in the previous match, but a few nagging worries remain - chief amongst them being the ability to curb the opposition with the new ball. A pace attack of Zaheer, Ishant and Nehra looks very good on paper, but all three have so far in the series proved much more effective in their second spells than in their first. That may be due in a large part to Sri Lanka's top-order batting, but the bowlers have to find a way to break through in their first spells. Zaheer Khan, in particular, is a bowler of too good quality and pride to let his bowling get whacked around the park the way it has been done.
Sri Lanka have plenty of worries of their own - what with quite a few first choice players - Muralitharan, Mathews, Thushara - being unavailable owing to injury. Their chief problem is the over-reliance on a top-heavy batting order. They have been kept competitive in this series solely due to the efforts of Dilshan, Sangakkara ably supported by Tharanga, but nobody else has contributed anything of note.
Sri Lanka will also need their bowlers to contain the Indian batsmen, and they can only do that by making early inroads into the Indian line-up. With the current Indian middle-order being inexperienced, the Sri Lankans should focus on getting a couple of early wickets to account for two of the top three batsmen, and then rely on their spinners to create a stranglehold over the rest of the batting. In this, Sri Lanka can depend on their fielders to back up their bowlers, and they are more fortunate than India in that respect. Sri Lanka must also take a long and hard look at Ajantha Mendis. How a bowler of such promise has turned so pedestrian is something that they can examine once the series is done and dusted, but they should initiate some immediate fire-fighting measures to get him to bowls at least half-decently, and failing that consider dropping him from the eleven to make room for someone who can offer them more than what Mendis is giving in his current avatar.
In closing, an intriguing thought for the Indian fan who would want a long-term benefit for the team is the thought of the top-3 batsmen - Tendulkar, Sehwag and Gambhir - failing in this ODI. This would expose the young guns to a very tough situation, and if India wants to plan for the 2011 World Cup, then it needs the younger set to be battle-hardened after coming through tough experiences. With no Dhoni or Yuvraj around, a collective failure by the top three might be just what the younger set needs for better all-round growth in the long term.
India (From): Virender Sehwag(c), Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Dinesh Karthik(w), Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Ishant Sharma, Pragyan Ojha, Praveen Kumar, Sudeep Tyagi
Sri Lanka (From): Tillakaratne Dilshan, Upul Tharanga, Kumar Sangakkara(w/c), Mahela Jayawardene, Sanath Jayasuriya, Thilina Kandamby, Chamara Kapugedera, Nuwan Kulasekara, Ajantha Mendis, Lasith Malinga, Chanaka Welegedara, Thilan Samaraweera, Thilan Thushara, Muthumudalige Pushpakumara, Suraj Randiv, Suranga Lakmal, Thissara Perera