Victory for the tourists will take them to No. 2 in the rankings, while Sri Lanka will hope to avoid losing four straight ODIs at home.
Sri Lanka and India have played each other nine times this year, in Australia, Bangladesh and in Sri Lanka, and the end is in sight. However, the fifth and final ODI in Pallekele on Saturday is a dead rubber after India wrapped up the series on Tuesday and the best the hosts can hope for is a win that would give them some momentum leading up to the ICC World Twenty20s next month.
India own a 6-2 advantage in the nine ODIs this year – there was one tied match in Adelaide – and are one victory away from moving to No. 2 in the ODI rankings. Sri Lanka sit behind England at fifth place.
Though they have never met at this venue, Saturday’s match in Pallekele will carry more than a sense of déjà vu for the two teams, because the previous two dead rubber bilateral one-day matches they contested – in 2008 and 2009 – came with the series already won by India and Sri Lanka fighting for pride. On both occasions Sri Lanka won, and this time too they will be looking to avoid losing four consecutive ODIs at home.
What Sri Lanka have lacked is a definitive innings in four matches. Upul Tharanga has two half-centuries but apart from his unbeaten 59 in the second ODI when Sri Lanka chased 134 inside 20 overs, he has struggled to dominate. Especially against Zaheer Khan and Irfan Pathan he has been susceptible, and a strike-rate of 73 indicates that he hasn’t been able to force the pace. His opening partner, Tillakaratne Dilshan, has had a poor series: 102 runs in four innings at 2.50.
Dinesh Chandimal has scored 47 runs in four innings at a strike-rate of 73.43 and has the added responsibility of keeping wickets. Lahiru Thirimanne has batted twice, at No’s 3 and 7, with an even poorer strike-rate of 68.35. Mahela Jayawardene averages 26.66, each time out to spin. Even Angelo Mathews unbeaten 71 turned out to be an inconsequential innings. Sri Lanka need someone to score a big century, and quickly. Considering India’s batting line-up and Virat Kohli’s outrageous form, no total seems safe.
The hosts have also been let down by their bowlers, especially their spearhead Lasith Malinga whose five wickets have come at an average of 44. He has conceded runs at 6.19 an over, bleeding runs at the death overs with Kohli and MS Dhoni plucking his full and swinging deliveries with glee. Rangana Herath has held on to his place as Sri Lanka’s lead spinner, but an economy rate of 4.93 has been offset by strike-rate of 93 and average of 76.50. Only Mathews (five wickets at 27.80) and Thisara Perera (seven at 28.14) have been reliable wicket-takers. It is foreseeable that Herath makes way for offspinner Sachitra Senanayake, who has made his presence felt with some sharp catches as a substitute fielder.
India could use the dead rubber to throw an opportunity to their only unused member of the squad, Ajinkya Rahane. Rahane has so far been a drinks-waiter on tour but could be in line for his first international game since December 11, 2011 if the management opts to rest Virender Sehwag. Since they have shown no inclination to drop Rohit Sharma, averaging 2.25 for the series, the only possible way for Rahane to get a game would be for one of the openers to be rested.
There is a likelier chance that Zaheer Khan will sit out this match and that India recall Umesh Yadav, who hasn’t played since the second ODI. Zaheer is 33, and with a busy Test season ahead there is reason to allow him rest up. He is also in the squad for Tuesday’s one-off Twenty20, so giving Zaheer an extra off day may not be a bad idea.
Sri Lanka: 1 Upul Tharanga, 2 Tillakaratne Dilshan, 3 Dinesh Chandimal (wk), 4 Lahiru Thirimanne, 5 Mahela Jayawardene (capt), 6 Angelo Mathews, 7 Thisara Perera, 8 Jeevan Mendis, 9 Lasith Malinga, 10 Rangana Herath/Sachitra Senanayake, 11 Nuwan Pradeep
India: 1 Gautam Gambhir, 2 Virender Sehwag/Ajinkya Rahane, 3 Virat Kohli, 4 Rohit Sharma, 5 Manoj Tiwary, 6 Suresh Raina, 7 MS Dhoni (capt/wk), 8 Irfan Pathan, 9 R Ashwin, 10 Umesh Yadav, 11 Ashok Dinda