Heavy attrition was followed by heavy artillery in the first two sessions of play, and India walked away with the honours from both: Anil Kumble came up with a special two-wicket over ten minutes before lunch, ending a resolute period of defiance by Mahela Jayawardene; and Virender Sehwag hurt Sri Lanka with a characteristic fifty – his first in a match in which he had scored a century already. Despite Jayawardene’s calm innings, and the fall of Sehwag’s wicket against the run of play, India looked like moving towards a comfortable lead on a pitch that should be at its worst in the fourth innings.
After India had secured a 37-run lead in the first innings, Sehwag continued from where he had left: hitting the first ball he faced for a boundary. Nuwan Kulasekara got a repeat dose four times in his four overs. Muttiah Muralitharan, introduced in the sixth over, was swept for four in his first over and a six in his second. Ajantha Mendis, brought on in the 17th over – the latest he has been introduced in his two Tests so far – was cut for a four in his second over. Only Chaminda Vaas, who was faced mostly by Gautam Gambhir, escaped the treatment. And finally, when Sehwag thrashed a wide ball from Vaas towards extra cover, Tillakaratne Dilshan held on to a special catch: it was fast, it was high, and Dilshan was at short cover.
Gambhir, meanwhile, who had made a slow start, quietly took the front seat: he had scored two runs off 20 when Sehwag had 22 off 15, but when Sehwag got out for 50, Gambhir had 39 off 65. His handling of Murali was exceptional: no more getting suckered out of the crease, he was almost always right to the pitch of the ball. He slog-swept Murali, cover-drove him, and then charged him straight down to reach his second fifty of the match – another first, as with Sehwag.
The first session was slow by contrast, but just as intense and gripping as the others, and perhaps much more crucial. Almost every over – before Mahela started farming strike following a double-strike – featured a loud shout, an edge that fell short, or a sharp spinning delivery that missed everything. Kumble and Harbhajan bowled 24 successive overs in tandem, and but for a three-over spell by Ishant Sharma in the final session yesterday, bowled 68 overs at a stretch. Harbhajan took his unbroken spell to 37 overs, and after he was finally taken off, returned immediately to bowl from the other end.
Jayawardene, despite back-to-back wickets for Kumble and Harbhajan, kept Sri Lanka in the game. He was unaffected by the spinning ball, the variations in the bowling, and all else that happened around him. There were no free runs on offer; but he was assured enough to not try to hit himself out of the situation. He managed a total of five boundaries in the session – Malinda Warnapura had hit four in one over yesterday. And once Prasanna and Vaas fell in consecutive overs, two things happened for Sri Lanka that haven’t happened in tandem for India: Jayawardene farmed the strike adroitly; and Kulasekara gave solid support to his captain, facing the few deliveries he needed to with aplomb. In sharp contrast, in the first Test, Laxman failed to keep the strike to himself; in the second, when Virender Sehwag farmed it, he got zero support from the tail.
The only quarter Sri Lanka received from India came from the close-in fielding. Gambhir, who let a half-chance go yesterday, couldn’t hold on to a similar offering from Prasanna early in the day. And when Jayawardene, anxious to shield Kulasekara, went for an unwise single off the last ball of the 79th over, Gambhir – at short square leg – failed to gather the ball as it came off a slightly bad bounce.
In keeping with the narrative of the match till then, just when Sri Lanka seemed to have got themselves the upper hand, another turnaround followed, with Kumble making his first impact of the series. Jayawardene, 14 short of a deserved century, edged Kumble to Dinesh Karthik, and the game was back in the balance. Although Jayawardene and Kulasekara frustrated India for 17.1 overs, India had managed to keep the partnership down to 36 runs. Kumble and Harbhajan then proceeded to remove the next two – taking the last three wickets in seven balls – to get the lead, which on this pitch will surely be bigger than the number it consists of.
– About Cricket –
Sandesh Kumar Jaggi