Hobart: They didn't seem aware of it, but India's one-day team has a slim chance of reaching the best-of-three-finals of the CB Series going into their final leage match at Bellerive Oval on Tuesday.
Indian skipper MS Dhoni's candid but alarming remark on Sunday, following a third straight loss, that his team was out of the tournament due to a lower net run rate than Australia and Sri Lanka highlighted not just his and the team management's own disregard of what the scenario was, but also how flat India have become. Perhaps they really just want to leave Australia and get a few extra days off before the Asia Cup starts on March 12. Maybe it is not such a bad idea.
But the reality is that they have one more match to play, and it does not just have to be a formality. Should India beat Sri Lanka handsomely to gain a bonus point, they will then hope that Australia beat Sri Lanka on Friday. If both of those results pan out, India will be level with Sri Lanka on 15 points with both teams having won thrice. In such a scenario, the net run rate will take a back seat to the head-to-head results. India will have beaten Sri Lanka twice while losing just once, thereby ensuring their progression into the finals.
It won't be easy. Dhoni cut a fatigued figure after Sunday's defeat, even hobbling out of the post-match press conference. Zaheer Khan has been ruled out with a calf strain and Vinay Kumar has a sore hamstring. The batting looks decidedly shoddy and to have a chance of winning, India's bowlers will need to restrict Sri Lanka to 200 or less given how poor the batting has been.
It is a truism of sport that all it takes is victory to turn things around. To do that, the batting will have to lead the way, for though it boasts of an impressive line-up of run-scorers, the story on this tour is familiar under pressure or on lively tracks. India are likely to encounter both: the pitch at Bellerive Oval often provides assistance to the fast bowlers and players on both sides have observed that it looks likely to offer some pace and bounce.
Of particular concern to India's management is the shoddy batting of several star players, and getting the entire unit firing heavily is pivotal if they are to negotiate Sri Lanka's canny brand of bowlers without collapsing in a heap. Given Virender Sehwag's terrible form – 35 runs in four innings – it is foreseeable that India drop or 'rotate' him for Manoj Tiwary to give Gautam Gambhir (245 runs at 40.82) and Sachin Tendulkar (104 runs at 17.33) another shot at opening together. Rohit Sharma has been disastrous, tallying 79 runs from five matches, so the management may opt to give Tiwary – whose last international innings was a century – his first chance on tour. India certainly need something drastic to stay alive, and drafting in fresh legs may be the way forward.
Sri Lanka, by contrast, have little reason to tinker. The batting has firepower at the top, in the middle and down the order. The bowling possesses raw pace, nagging seam and controlling spin. The fielding is sharp. All of this places Sri Lanka at a distinct advantage.
On 15 points, a victory here will take them into the finals and even if they lose, they still have a match in hand. Sri Lanka will take confidence from their wins over them and Australia in straight games, and the fact that their batsmen have been in form. Mahela Jayawardene, the captain, has prospered since promoting himself to the opening slot, reeling off 61*, 45 and 85 in three consecutive innings. Tillakaratne Dilshan has shown bursts of promise, Dinesh Chandimal is the second-highest run-scorer of the series, Lahiru Thirimanne has grown in confidence and Angelo Mathews has been handy in the slog overs. If Sri Lanka can coax some runs out of Kumar Sangakkara – who recently went past 10,000 ODI runs – it would certainly help shut India out.
India: 1 Sachin Tendulkar, 2 Gautam Gambhir, 3 Virat Kohli, 4 Suresh Raina, 5 Manoj Tiwary, 6 MS Dhoni (capt/wk), 7 Ravindra Jadeja, 8 Irfan Pathan 9 R Ashwin, 10 Praveen Kumar, 11 Umesh Yadav.
Sri Lanka: 1 Mahela Jayawardene (capt), 2 Tillakaratne Dilshan, 3 Kumar Sangakkara (wk), 4 Dinesh Chandimal, 5 Lahiru Thirimanne, 6 Angelo Mathews, 7 Farveez Maharoof, 8 Thissara Perera, 9 Nuwan Kulasekara, 10 Lasith Malinga, 11 Rangana Herath.