The last time Sri Lanka toured India for a Test series in 2009, MS Dhoni was India's Test captain and Virat Kohli had no ODI centuries, and had not yet made a Test debut. Eight years later, the only two players of the current squad who were part of the 2009 team are Ishant Sharma and M Vijay; for Sri Lanka, only Rangana Herath and Angelo Mathews in the current squad made that trip to India in 2009. Since the 2009 Test series, Sri Lanka have played 16 limited-over matches in India, losing 12 and winning only three.
Since 2011 across all formats India have won 31 matches to Sri Lanka's 8. Both teams have undergone major transitions in this period - while Sri Lanka have struggled to find consistency in their results, India have cruised to one series victory after another, staking claim to the top spot in the ICC Test rankings. Will Sri Lanka be able to triumph or at least challenge India in their backyard? The numbers clearly suggest otherwise.
Not competitive enough with the bat
For starters, Sri Lanka have never won a Test in India. The only other teams who haven't won a Test here are Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. In 17 games, Sri Lanka have lost 10 and drawn seven. More startling is that eight out of the 10 defeats have been by an innings while the remaining two losses were by margins in excess of 180 runs. Sri Lanka have not been in a dominant position in any Test barring one, when they made a record 760 for 7 in Ahmedabad in 2009. In 29 innings, Sri Lanka have made in excess of 400 only twice. In a country where high first-innings scores are vital to win Tests, Sri Lanka's first innings average is only 251, excluding the Ahmedabad Test which is clearly an outlier. Only New Zealand have a lower first-innings average in India.
In the forthcoming series, Sri Lanka will rely on Dimuth Karunaratne (average 39.13 since August 2014) and Dinesh Chandimal (39.89) - the side's best batsmen since the retirements of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene - to score the bulk of their runs. Historically, left-handed batsmen have done well in India and Karunaratne will be looking to continue that trend. Another important batsman is Angelo Mathews, who is coming back after a break and has not scored a Test century in two years. Since January 2016, Mathews averages only 28.12. If Mathews can find form early on in the series then Sri Lanka's batting could be a force to reckon with.
Can Herath counter India's plan this time around?
The current squad Sri Lanka have a combined experience of 361 Tests, and 654 Test wickets. Sixty-two percent of those wickets have been taken by one bowler: Herath has 405 Test wickets and is coming off another successful tour against his favorite opposition, Pakistan. However, in this series, Herath will be up against an opposition that has done well against him and historically against Muttiah Muralitharan (average 45.45 in India). Herath averages 45.96 against India; against no other country has he conceded more than 33 runs per wicket. Barring the Galle Test in 2015, Herath does not have any significant performances against India, with the batsmen negating any threat from Herath through a now well-known strategy of using their feet against him.
Three months ago, India's batsmen left the crease 84 times versus Herath, scoring 123 runs off those balls while losing just two wickets. Herath ended the tour bowling 546 deliveries for just five wickets at an average of 69.40. Herath averages 18.89 when Sri Lanka win and 43.72 when they lose. With Dilruwan Perera also having a horrid series against India at home, taking two wickets at an average of 190, and Lakshan Sandakan playing only his second series outside Sri Lanka, the onus is on Herath to plan and outfox the in-form India batsmen. With an inexperienced pace attack, Sri Lanka will rely heavily on Herath to have one last crack at India and help set up their first Test win in the country.
The Ashwin threat
Although R Ashwin has not played any international cricket since August, he remains a significant threat for the visiting batsmen. Eight short of 300 Test wickets, Ashwin will look to extend his rich vein of form at home. Ashwin should also pose a greater threat given that Sri Lanka have three left-handers in their top order: six of the top seven batsmen he has dismissed most in Tests are left-handers. Ashwin also has a tendency to win mini-battles against key batsmen in the opposition. He has a jump start already, having dismissed Dimuth Karunaratne five times in six innings, conceding just 138 runs from 306 deliveries. He also has accounted for Lahiru Thirimanne 11 times across all formats, the most he has dismissed any batsmen along with David Warner.
Most of the Lankan batsmen went with a strategy to sweep and reverse-sweep Ashwin the last time they met. They managed to score 119 runs from 93 balls, with a majority being scored by Dickwella, but were dismissed five times in the process. It will be interesting to see if they follow a similar strategy against Ashwin, and how the India offspinner can counter that.