Dammika Prasad’s raw pace pulled India back after an explosive start, whereupon the spinners took charge of the game, as has been their wont over the course of the series. Sri Lanka also benefited from the review system; Mahela Jayawardene made exceptional use of it, getting the wickets of Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid after challenging the original decisions. Gambhir had got off to his fifth start in five innings, and a third half-century in three, in characteristically aggressive fashion, but could only watch from the other end as his partners came and went, before he himself failed to go on to convert his fifty into a big one.
Ever since Prasad was called up into the Sri Lanka squad after the first Test, his pace had been a talking point. And when he finally got the cap, his extra pace made the difference. He didn’t bowl at 150kph, but he was quick enough to thwart any thoughts the batsmen might have had of dominating the bowlers. The difference the pace made was clear from Gambhir’s approach against Chaminda Vaas and Prasad. To Vaas he would walk down the pitch, as he does in domestic cricket when facing lesser bowlers, nullifying any swing. When Vaas managed to beat him, he opened the face to run it towards third man. Vaas tried bouncing him out, but he managed to rock back and pull him for fours. But no such tactics were trotted out against Prasad, who took all three of his wickets – as opposed to buying them, as has been the case with Sri Lankan medium-pacers in the series so far.
After India chose to bat, both Gambhir and Sehwag outdid each other, hitting boundaries at will in the first half-hour. Prasad, fast and erratic to begin with, was handed a cruel baptism: Gambhir took a boundary off his first ball, Sehwag one off the first ball of his second over. After he managed to start his third over with a dot-ball, Prasad bowled a no-ball immediately after, which beat the keeper and went for four. The first ball of his fourth over was pummelled back to him and hit his left wrist viciously. After three minutes of treatment, he stunned Sehwag with one that held its line and took a faint edge through. The celebration – Prasad’s eyes almost popping out of their sockets, Murali-like – spoke for how important the wicket was.
India had done enough damage by then, it seemed: they had reached 51 in 7.2 overs. In came Dravid, struggling to find form, struggling to keep the strike rotating. The scoring-rate came down, and even though Dravid looked comfortable defending, it allowed the bowlers to settle into a rhythm.
Prasad, in his second spell, came up with another special one. He got one to swing in late, and beat Dravid’s defence. That’s where Jayawardene came in and challenged the not-out call. The replays showed that about 40% of the ball was inside the mat at the point of impact. As it would have definitely hit off and middle, and there was no inside edge, the point of impact was the only point of contention, and the umpire was convinced enough to overturn his decision.
To make a good first session better, Prasad got Sachin Tendulkar, playing in his 150th Test, beating him with inward movement. Tendulkar, given out by Benson, asked for a review, but the replay didn’t show any conclusive evidence of an inside edge, which would have been the only reason to reverse the decision.
In the middle session, Gambhir and Sourav Ganguly got a partnership going, with Ganguly playing the aggressor and Gambhir dropping anchor. Ganguly started off with a boundary off Prasad, and then lofted Muttiah Muralitharan over long-off. But Murali came back with a fastish offbreak that took Ganguly’s edge even as he tried to hide the bat behind the pad. The two had added 49.
Gambhir, meanwhile, despite having slowed down, looked comfortable. He seemed to be picking Mendis early, and looked to use his feet to him. He stepped out to hit a full toss from Mendis wide of mid-on to get to his sixth half-century. He then slowed down, which suggested he realised the need to get to at least a hundred, which he last managed in 2004-05 against Bangladesh. But Mendis and Jayawardene teamed up again: Mendis beat Gambhir with an offbreak and Jayawardene opted for another challenge, after the proximity of the bat to the front pad and the ball had created enough doubt for the on-field umpire to rule in favour of the batsman. Replays suggested otherwise, and Sri Lanka had reduced India from 51 for 0 to 155 for 5, even without Murali and Mendis in full cry.
In the last over before tea, Mendis made sure India had squandered the advantage of winning the toss, by getting India’s last recognised batsman, VVS Laxman, with a legbreak.
– About Cricket –
Sandesh Kumar Jaggi