A strong wind blows from west to east across the Galle Cricket Club, at an awkward angle, the kind that means the outswinger’s end is also the one against the wind. High catches will not be easy, especially if the white ball is lost in the cloudy sky. Clouds will be welcome though; day temperatures flirt with 35 degrees, and the humidity takes no prisoners as it marches past 80 per cent. And with the ocean raging on either side of the fort that sits to the south of the ground, it is sure to be a sultry day.
The Indian team will take note of all of these things, guarding against the exceptional; a period of strong wind, a cool spell that might help the ball swing or even some extra grass on the pitch and an unlucky toss. Because only with something exceptional should Sri Lanka be able to beat India in even one of the three ODIs, the first two of which Galle is hosting.
In the bigger picture, both teams have taken losses and are searching for points, like a video game character after a skirmish. Sri Lanka are the more desperate, they have none on the board yet, languishing at the bottom of the ICC Women’s Championship table. India are sixth; their wounds at the hands of Australia (a 0-3 defeat at home) far enough in the past to have healed. The wounds of the Asia Cup might still be open though.
India come into this tournament with a new coach, Ramesh Powar, who has been given charge of the team until the WT20 in November this year. After two shock losses to Bangladesh in the T20 Asia Cup, Tushar Arothe seemed to lose the confidence of the senior players. So India are looking for the stability that comes with victory, artificial though it may be. And the Sri Lanka tour comes at the best possible time; out of the 24 times these two teams have met, Sri Lanka have won just once, that too five years ago. The Islanders have 12 losses in their last 13 games. Against an Indian team high on talent, they are no lambs to the slaughter, but certainly facing a side in transition is just what the doctor ordered for Mithali Raj’s team.
That very fact will be the rampart from which Sri Lanka launch an attempted upset. “We have nothing to lose, everything to gain,” said Harsha de Silva, the coach. “Going into any series as underdogs is good, no one is expecting lot of miracles. In that aspect, we are not under the pump. Anything we do from here is a plus.” Sri Lanka’s bowling has always been tricky to negotiate, primarily because of the lack of pace. Udeshika Prabhodani, the left arm swing bowler, has been recalled into the side, but even off her full run up, she was not as quick as the coach giving measured throwdowns with the side-arm. Inoka Ranaweera’s left arm spin too is of the slower variety. For the Indian batters who like the ball coming on to the bat, this will be the biggest challenge.
Smriti Mandhana and Harmnpreet Kaur have come back from stints at the Kia Super League batting on flat wickets and quicker bowlers. Jemimah Rodrigues prospered against the pace of the Australians and English but will have to guard against the lack of it. All will learn from Mithali Raj, who averages 154 against Sri Lanka. ‘Time’ is a quality used to describe mastery of fast bowling, but Mithali’s forces us to use it even when playing the slower variety of bowlers.
She’s not taking them lightly though. “The gap between the top teams and the bottom teams is narrowing because of the ICC Women’s Championship,” she said at the pre-series press conference. “You do have a player here who is representing Sri Lanka in the Big Bash League. That in itself should show that you have a very strong team, but India definitely is very positive about our own performance on the field.”
That player is Sri Lanka captain Chamari Athapaththu. Athapaththu is everything Sri Lankan batting promises to be: Asian timing, global power, and on her day, flush in the currency the world understands: runs. But since her incandescent 178* in the World Cup, her next highest score is 46 in 11 innings. Still, de Silva has high hopes from her. “We all know she has the potential. In the past three years or so, in a way she is under-performing. I reckon in that way KSL and WBBL experiences have helped her understand that she needs to go out and express herself. And we have given her free hand to go do that.”
Just like Powar’s, this is de Silva’s first series as well. Having spent the last five years coaching in Australia, with the last two of those with women’s teams, he is better adjusted to this role than he was in his first stint, from 2010 to 2013. It was under him that Sri Lanka achieved their only win against India, a clinical performance that knocked India out of their own World Cup. For his team, this series is the first step in plotting the exceptional. Again.