GALLE - The iconic Galle Fort stands majestically between the Indian Ocean and the Galle International Stadium. Built by the Portuguese in 1588 and fortified by the Dutch some 60 years thereafter, it is at once awe-inspiring and imposing. Largely untouched by the tsunami of December 2004, it couldn’t exactly prevent the destruction of the cricket ground, since restored to its pristine best, but it stands as a symbol of courage and resolve, of extraordinary strength and unshakeable resistance.

It is in the fitness of things that the Galle Fort overhangs the ground that is somewhat of a Sri Lankan bastion. Only six times in 29 tries have overseas teams managed to breach the fortress; Sri Lanka have won 17 Tests here, including the last four, and generally grow dramatically in stature when stepping on to the lush-green outfield.

Past history and feel-good alone, however, won’t be of too much assistance unless Rangana Herath’s men bring their ‘A’ game to the table against the No. 1-ranked Test team in the world. It was from the heartbreak in Galle two years back that the seeds of India’s climb up the Test charts were sowed; a majority of the personnel that saw three days of domination end in a Herath-catalysed demolition on day four are still around, and will be desperate to atone for a meltdown that was as swift and stunning as it was unexpected.

It is with this recent history as the backdrop that Herath, standing in for the indisposed Dinesh Chandimal, and Virat Kohli will walk out for the toss on Thursday morning to herald the beginning of the first of three Tests. India is the favourite not just because it is ranked No. 1 but also because how beautifully it has adapted to situations in the last one year, especially. Sri Lanka, however, is always formidable in its own backyard even though it is somewhat of a pale shadow of the team that surged forward when populated by the likes of Tillakaratne Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Muttiah Muralitharan.

The air of quiet confidence around the Indian camp is unmistakable. Its focus has been more on itself than its opponents, and it topped off its preparations with a snappy afternoon session on Wednesday minus the fast bowlers, who were given the day off. Only the batsmen were mandated to attend the session, the spinners had the option of sitting the stint out but they all made a beeline to the ground. Even as the groundstaff worked overtime in trying to make an already good-looking outfield appear picture perfect, India went about its business with single-minded focus, determined to cut all the frills out and take no cognisance of the fact that Sri Lanka have been struggling for results, even at home, since the start of the year.

KL Rahul’s unavailability through illness has opened the door for the Test returns of Abhinav Mukund and Shikhar Dhawan, the left-handed opening duo. When the team for the tour was announced two weeks back, this would hardly have been the first-choice opening combine. But with M Vijay ruling himself out due to a wrist injury and Rahul picking up a viral fever, Abhinav and Dhawan – Vijay’s replacement – have a somewhat unexpected chance to resuscitate their careers and keep themselves relevant going forward.

While India will miss Rahul’s consistency and his positivity at the top, it won’t totally fret over his absence.

It will also not think too long and hard before buttoning down on five specialist bowlers in deference to the heat and humidity here, and the need to share the workload around without compromising on batting might. All of this points to a Test debut for Hardik Pandya, the quick bowling-allrounder, on an atypical Galle strip with a reasonable smattering of grass adorning a bone-hard surface rolled in nicely and taking a harsh beating from unforgiving spin.

India will bank on a bowling combine of Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami or Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Pandya, R Ashwin – who will be playing his 50th Test – and Ravindra Jadeja to take 20 wickets and set the team on the road to victory. There is both class and variety in this five-man pack, and the conditions as much as anything else might preclude the inclusion of Kuldeep Yadav, the chinaman bowler whose ilk has repeatedly troubled the Sri Lankans in the past. Hardik Pandya could be handed a debut on an atypical Galle strip with a reasonable smattering of grass adorning a bone-hard surface rolled in nicely and taking a harsh beating from unforgiving spin.

Hardik Pandya could be handed a debut on an atypical Galle strip with a reasonable smattering of grass adorning a bone-hard surface rolled in nicely and taking a harsh beating from unforgiving spin

Already in the throes of a generational shift, Sri Lanka will have to make do without Chandimal, the man who set the stage for Herath to weave his magic here two years back. Sri Lanka’s newly appointed Test skipper, who made an unbeaten 162 in August 2015, is recovering from pneumonia, and therefore has opened up a big hole in the middle order that is extremely reliant on Angelo Mathews, the man whom Chandimal replaced at the helm. Sri Lanka have won two of its last three Tests at home, but have been forced to dig deep to do so. Defeat at the hands of Bangladesh in March in Colombo was followed by a record run-chase against an unfancied Zimbabwe last week, and Sri Lanka know that if it is at less than its best, it will be ruthlessly taken apart by an intense Indian side with an even more demanding skipper at the helm.

SRI LANKA: Rangana Herath (capt), Upul Tharanga, Dimuth Karunaratne, Kusal Mendis, Dhananjaya de Silva, Angelo Mathews, Asela Gunaratne, Niroshan Dickwella (wk), Danushka Gunathilaka, Dilruwan Perera, Suranga Lakmal, Lahiru Kumara, Vishwa Fernando, Malinda Pushpukumara, Nuwan Pradeep.

INDIA: Virat Kohli (captain), M Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane (vice-capt), Rohit Sharma, R Ashwin, R Jadeja, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Hardik Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Kuldeep Yadav, Abhinav Mukund.

Match starts at 9:30 AM