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Stage set for a fascinating finale Saturday,August 9th 2008

Colombo: Having broken gaol in the second Test, escaping the restraining order Sri Lanka had served at the SSC, India will look for a clean getaway in the third — perhaps not as fancy as the ones that involve cars careening around corners, sirens in tow, but a sound one all the same.

The prize involved — only India’s second Test series win in five trips across the Palk Straits — is worth staking everything on. Few sides defeat Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka; fewer still come back from behind to accomplish it.

“In terms of confidence, in terms of strategy, we have done whatever we can to ensure we win the Test and the series,” Anil Kumble, the Indian captain, said on Thursday.

Formidable leader

Kumble has proven a formidable leader, fashioning a Test side of quality and experience in his spirit: unyielding, combative, resilient. Before leaving to be with his ailing mother, Gary Kirsten, India’s coach, spoke of how the Indian team had regrouped after the innings-and-239-run defeat in the first Test — of how Kumble’s hurt had filtered to the rest of the side, supplying the men with the tonic they so badly required.

The enormity of the task entrusted to Kumble befits his stature: India has gone long without stringing two Test wins together, last achieving this in 2005, when it defeated Sri Lanka at Delhi and Ahmedabad; only once has India battled back from a 0-1 deficit to win a three-Test series.

“We’ve done that once against Australia in 2001, if I remember right, having been down one-nil," said Kumble. “That was in India. These are different conditions and all of us are looking forward to the challenge.”

Rich history

The P. Saravanamuttu Stadium, which will host the third Test at no charge to the Sri Lankan Cricket Board, lends itself to the contemplation of such heady thoughts. Not only does it enclose the country’s best cricket wicket (whose firmness some of the Indians ascertained by leaning on it on all fours), it possesses a rich history.

Sir Donald Bradman and the Invincibles were here in 1948. Evidence can be found in the tastefully done-up bar beside the pavilion. A sepia print of the Don, sola topi and rimmed spectacles, walking to the centre with Mahadevan Sathasivam, revered here as the finest of all time, is a reminder of the great deeds that have been enacted here.

Mahela Jayawardene, the Sri Lankan captain, was part of a recent one, scoring a century in the fourth-innings pursuit of 352 against South Africa in 2006. “That was a historical win for us. (But) this is going to be an interesting one, with everything to play for, after we have felt each other out in the first two.”

One change each likely

The sides will make a change each. Kumble said Parthiv Patel will replace Dinesh Karthik behind the stumps, thus ending a morning of intrigue, which began during the warm-up game of touch rugby when Karthik and Patel leapt covetously for the same ball and wound up embracing each other.

Sri Lanka, stung by Ishant Sharma at Galle, is intent on sharpening its cutting edge. Either Thilan Thushara, the left-armer, or Dammika Prasad, who impressed against the Indians in the warm-up match, will play in Nuwan Kulasekara’s place. Both, Jayawardene said, “have good pace”.

It will be interesting to see how Ajantha Mendis bowls on this strip. Both at the SSC and at the Galle International Stadium, he benefited from his under-cut carom ball skidding through. Will the delivery retain its menace on a strip that offers bounce?

Better suited

India’s bowling unit appears better stocked to handle the surface. It should suit Ishant’s natural length. Both Harbhajan Singh, who at Galle claimed his first ten-for outside India, and Kumble, who hasn’t been at his best this series, enjoy bowling on such surfaces. Zaheer Khan managed movement off the track at the pan-flat SSC; he will like the grass cover, which even if shaved will provide traction.

Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir showed at Galle that Muttiah Muralitharan and Mendis could be tamed. But their illustrious colleagues didn’t press the advantage. The famed Indian middle-order enters the third Test with just one half-century (V.V.S. Laxman’s) in the series.

Jayawardene reckoned his side had bowled well, ratcheting up the pressure to curtail the starts India’s batting stars had made. Kumble wasn’t concerned. “It’s great that we won a Test match pretty comfortably without them getting runs,” he said. “If they score the runs that are due, things will be fine.”

The sides (from):

Sri Lanka: Mahela Jayawardene (capt), Michael Vandort, Malinda Warnapura, Kumar Sangakkara, Thilan Samaraweera, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Prasanna Jayawardene (wk), Chaminda Vaas, Muttiah Muralitharan, Ajantha Mendis, Thilan Thushara, Dammika Prasad, Chamara Kapugedera, Chamara Silva, and Nuwan Kulasekara.

India: Anil Kumble (capt), Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, V.V.S. Laxman, Parthiv Patel (wk), Harbhajan Singh, Ishant Sharma, Zaheer Khan, Rohit Sharma, R.P. Singh, Munaf Patel, Pragyan Ojha, and Dinesh Karthik.

Umpires: Rudi Koertzen and Mark Benson; Television umpire: Billy Doctrove; Match referee: Alan Hurst.

Hours of play (IST): 10.15 a.m. to 12.15 p.m., 12.55 p.m. to 2.55 p.m., and 3.15 p.m. till close.

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