The contrasting tales of India and Sri Lanka

The paths of Virat Kohli and Angelo Mathews as captains since India’s tour of Sri Lanka in 2015 could not have been more different.

Virat Kohli... now a seasoned leader.   -  PTI

When Dinesh Chandimal scored a counter-attacking century in Galle two years ago, the Indian dominance in that Test fizzled out to ensure a demoralising defeat on the final day. Despite the nature of the crumble, however, the occasion was not a harbinger of things to come. For, India brushed off the lapse remarkably well and kept Sri Lanka in even tighter leash in the next two Tests in Colombo. The series was duly won, with Galle only an aberration.

Kohli was then a newcomer to Test captaincy; the tour of Sri Lanka was his first full series as Test captain. Mathews, on the other hand, had had prior experience; he had even tasted big success, in the ICC World Twenty20 title win in 2014.

India went on to chart a prolific and relentless path of victories since that tour of Sri Lanka. It wore down a seasoned South African side, then the No. 1 Test side, at home, and embarked on a decent limited-overs season that culminated in a semifinal run at the ICC World Twenty20. In the home season that followed the Indian Premier League, India brushed aside all opponents that visited its shore in the Tests — New Zealand, England, Bangladesh and Australia. Also, it dominated West Indies in the Caribbean. All in all, it became the team to beat, impregnable at home, and seemingly away from home, too.

These years have established captain Virat Kohli’s position as a solid leader who is set to chart India’s and his own legacy. It became evident that behind the uncompromising attitude, the combative spirit, and the oozing batting talent lay a shrewd brain, mindfulness, and a competent work ethic. Moreover, the inexhaustible Kohli was unfazed in the age of ever-increasing scrutiny by the media and 'brands’, and even seemed to enjoy it. As a corollary, he has now become the face of Indian cricket.

Kohli’s and India’s rise have been awe-inspiring, especially after a phase of low under the leadership of M. S. Dhoni, when India was whitewashed in England and Australia, and beaten by England at home. Kohli has admitted the foundation of this phase of success was the tour of Sri Lanka.

In contrast, his Sri Lankan counterpart in that tour has endured a phase marked by frequent failures. The stalwarts Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara had put their faith on Angelo Mathews to take the country ahead in their absence. The tour of India marked the departure of the second of the retirees — Sangakkara – and since then, Sri Lanka has stuttered and faltered on most international cricket assignments.

Post the Indian visit, Sri Lanka suffered one-sided defeats in New Zealand, England and South Africa, and defeated West Indies and Australia at home. The 3-0 whitewash of Australia was perhaps the most memorable moment of Mathews’ captaincy career, coming as it did amid failures all around. The Australians buckled under the pressure of spin, in what was Steve Smith’s first full series as Test captain. Impressive though the host’s performance may have been, it must be understood that Australia has a poor record of late in the sub-continent, suffering annihilations by India and Pakistan in the recent past. Moreover, Smith was just settling into the job then.

To compound Sri Lanka’s woes, Bangladesh pulled off its first Test win over it earlier this year, and earlier this month, Zimbabwe almost ensured its own victory, after a One-Day International series win. It led to Mathews’ resignation as captain in all formats — the periods of high under him were too few and far between.

Kohli, now a seasoned leader, has Dinesh Chandimal, a newcomer to Test captaincy, as his counterpart in the ongoing tour (Chandimal, though, is out if the first Test due to illness and Herath is leading the side). It is clear that the gulf between the teams in quality, experience and momentum is much bigger that the Indian tour of 2015, and India is a huge favourite to claim the series. But as had been proven by that Galle Test two years ago, the tables can turn any moment.

If Mathews, freed from the chains of captaincy, and Rangana Herath seek redemption in displaying the best of them, India may find prior reputations count for little.

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