Hambantota: Getting the upper hand over the other will be the priority of Sri Lanka and India as they get the five-match series underway with the first ODI at Hambantota on Saturday. Both sides have been patchy in 2012 and there will be no room for complacency in what is shaping to be series that could be decided with the ball.
India had a torrid time during the latter part of 2011 and the first half of 2012. In England they were blanked in the Tests and ODIs and in Australia, followed a 4-0 Test defeat by failing to make the CB Series finals; immediately after that long and arduous tour, they failed to reach the Asia Cup final. After such defeats, series wins over England and West Indies at home hardly amounted to much.
Through the gloom, there was one bright spot - Virat Kohli’s further enhancement of a burgeoning career through excellent centuries against Sri Lanka and Pakistan. He will be the biggest threat for Sri Lanka, followed by Gautam Gambhir who has a superb record against the hosts. Gambhir is in form, has captained Kolkata Knight Riders to the IPL 5 title and is the best player of spin in the team. After Kohli, he'll be India's trump card.
MS Dhoni has a spectacular record as a batman in Sri Lanka and his presence down the order remains huge. Questions were raised about his captaincy last season and Dhoni would like to win the series to answer his critics. He is, after all, the only Indian captain to win an ODI series in Sri Lanka – twice.
Virender Sehwag had a forgettable season and must be determined to wipe out the dark memories by putting up a sparkling show. He batted well in IPL 5 and is one of the most destructive batsmen around. Getting runs out of Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina is also imperative for India.
The biggest concern is the bowling. Barring Zaheer Khan, there is not much experience in the bowling line-up. Ashok Dinda is a rhythm bowler but needs to get his length right. India have high hopes from Pragyan Ojha and Ravichandran Ashwin to 'spin' the match their way. Pitches in Sri Lanka assist spinners and Ashwin must be rubbing his hands in glee. Irfan Pathan will have to make a drastic improvement to excel as a bowler in these conditions.
Sri Lanka have also had mixed results in 2012. They reached the CB Series finals where they lost to Australia, failed to win a game during the Asia Cup and most recently beat Pakistan 4-1. They have a formidable home record and it will take some doing on India’s part to beat them.
Their main batsmen are coming off a good series against Pakistan, especially Tillakaratne Dilshan, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. However, Upul Tharanga's form might be a concern for Sri Lanka, and he won’t take much confidence from his record against India. Dinesh Chandimal is a quality batsman and has the responsibility to hold the middle order together, with Lahiru Thirimanne and Thissara Perera capable of plundering quick runs in the end overs.
With the ball, Sri Lanka have a big advantage over India. Up front, there is the reliable pair of Lasith Malinga and Nuwan Kulasekara, followed by Angelo Matthews who will be relied on heavily in conditions where he has proven adept. Almost a like-to-like bowler is Perera, who was outstanding against Sri Pakistan with his ability to move the ball both ways and get it to skid on.
Bolstering the spin attack will be Rangana Herath, coming off a good series against Pakistan.
The surface in Hambantota is known to be dry, which gives the team batting first an advantage as the ball doesn't come on to the bat in the second half. Both teams have a couple of quality spinners who will have a role to play on this pitch.
India: Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli (vice-capt), Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma, Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt & wk), Irfan Pathan, Ravichandran Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha, Zaheer Khan, Umesh Yadav
Sri Lanka: Tillakratne Dilshan, Upul Tharanga, Mahela Jayawardene (capt), Kumar Sangakkara (wk), Dinesh Chandimal, Angelo Mathews (vice-capt), Lahiru Thirimanne, Thisara Perera, Nuwan Kulasekara, Lasith Malinga, Rangana Herath