India started promisingly in their quest to exorcise the ghosts of the SSC Test before being thwarted by double-strikes from Ajantha Mendis and Chaminda Vaas. Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir played India into a position of domination but, after a rain break that accounted for the middle session and 75 minutes, Sri Lanka struck gold, taking four wickets for 11, bringing the memories of the collapses in the first Test back to roost.
Like the pitch at the Galle International Stadium, which comprised two polar halves - one cracked and unreliable, the other flat and damp - the first day’s play featured startling contrasts. In the first half of the day Sehwag and Gambhir put behind them not only the debacle at the SSC but also thoughts of how, early in the piece here, they played and missed, and how the ball misbehaved when it hit the cracks. They got India off to a flier; Sehwag fell just short - for the second time in his career - of a hundred in the first session of a Test, a session in which India scored 151 runs, registering the second biggest opening stand in Galle.
What made Sehwag and Gambhir’s partnership – which came at more than five an over - remarkable was that both batsmen were troubled amply by the bowling. Nuwan Kulasekara was the most testing, and the most unfortunate, of the bowlers in the first session, getting the ball to move both off the seam and off the cracks. In his first three overs he beat Gambhir and Sehwag more than once each, even getting a leading edge from Gambhir, and used the variable bounce well, bowling shooters and bouncers.
Gambhir was the first to counter the cracks: he stood outside the crease, and then walked down the pitch, almost like Matthew Hayden, as the bowler ran in. The lbw was ruled out, and a game of tip-and-run got underway, with the batsmen taking singles almost intuitively.
Soon Sehwag shook off the early jitters and shifted gears. No bowler was spared: only a soggy outfield saved Ajantha Mendis from being hit for a four in his first over. Muttiah Muralitharan was hit for a four off the first ball he bowled. Mendis was hit for a six for the first time in Tests.
Kulasekara employed a similar field for Sehwag as at the SSC - two fielders in the deep on the leg side. Here he bowled a head-high bouncer again, and Sehwag went for the pull again, but this time he got on top and hit it to cow corner. This was a batsman who reached a triple-century with a six, after he had tried - and failed - to get to a double the same way. Sehwag was true to character in his approach to moving from 90 to 100. The first ball he faced after the break, he edged Vaas to gully, who collected it first bounce. The second ball, he moved his front leg out of the way and almost hit it into the Galle Fort. Two balls later he bludgeoned a straight boundary to get to his 15th century.
The 21st over best illustrated Sehwag’s approach. Mendis started by beating Sehwag with a carrom ball, which he didn’t read. Then a straight one that beat him again. And he was almost caught and bowled off the fourth ball. Two balls later, reading the regulation offbreak correctly, Sehwag opened his arms and thrashed it through the covers for a four. The plan was simple for both batsmen: hit whatever you read, and rely on short-term memory loss if you are beaten. It worked in the first session.
In the third over of the second, Mendis got Gambhir with a googly that wasn’t. Gambhir had read the wrong’un correctly, playing for the offspin, but this one straightened to trap him in front. He was so befuddled by the deception that he called for the review, which only confirmed the unpalatable truth.
In came Rahul Dravid, not VVS Laxman - that experiment lasted only one innings - to face Mendis. To the second ball Dravid faced from Mendis, he thrust his pad forward to a regulation offbreak, and bat-padded. Malinda Warnapura, at forward short-leg, took the catch on the third take, but the ball had hit the visor of his helmet on the way. In any case, Dravid rendered the debate superfluous by walking. Dravid has now faced 32 balls from Mendis, scored three runs, and got out thrice.
Leading up to the match, there was some debate over Vaas’s utility to the side; it was even thought that Dammika Prasad’s inclusion in the squad was a nudge. Only three Tests ago, in Providence, Antigua, on a pitch that resembled Sri Lankan wickets, Vaas had taken eight wickets. Here in Galle, he proved once again his utility to the side with two wickets in one over, which helped turn 167 for 0 into 178 for 4.
Sachin Tendulkar played outside the line to one that straightened up enough to be hitting off stump. Sourav Ganguly was done in by the reverse-swing, the ball moving away with the shiny side; with a spectacular diving catch in front of Kumar Sangakkara at slip, Prasanna Jayawardene made amends for a slip he had made in similar circumstances earlier in the innings, causing Gambhir to be dropped on 13.
Sehwag has previously seen fiery starts given by him go to waste - in Melbourne in 2003-04, and in Mohali and Bangalore against Pakistan in 2004-05, to name a few. A similar story seemed to be panning out here, but thank goodness for small mercies - he was still unbeaten when bad light finally stopped play.
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Sandesh Kumar Jaggi