We never had a reply for Mendis - Dhoni
A tournament deserves the final it gets, it is said sometimes. On the surface, the Asia Cup, with its long-drawn format featuring as many minnows as regular teams, got the final it deserved: another one-sided contest. But scratch the surface and you find a match that ebbed and flowed, one with three individual performances of sheer genius which the tournament badly needed.
"After the game it looked one-sided," Mahela Jayawardene said. "Going into the game it wasn't one-sided at all."
India appeared to have run away with both bat and ball at the start but Sri Lanka fought back. Ishant Sharma took quick wickets to reduce Sri Lanka to 67 for 4 and Virender Sehwag's opening salvo tore their new-ball attack apart. However, while India's bowlers recovered from Sanath Jayasuriya's onslaught to restrict Sri Lanka to 273 their batsmen were unable to decode Ajantha Mendis and the run-chase never recovered from his mesmerising opening spell.
"Sanath took his chances even when they were four down," Mahendra Singh Dhoni said. "They took chances because they had in their minds that we were capable of chasing 300. It was a brilliant innings." Jayawardene said that although Mendis deservedly stole the glory, it was Jayasuriya's knock that kept them in the final.
Virender Sehwag's innings, a 36-ball 60 that would in most circumstances be enough to chase off 274, threatened to eclipse Jayasuriya before it was cut short. He flicked, glanced, pulled, drove straight and through covers, late-cut, and kept everyone rapt.
"I had no option at that time [but to introduce Mendis in the ninth over]," said Jayawardene. "Virender was batting very well, and we needed to take a wicket. I knew the ball would be too new for Murali [Muttiah Muralitharan]. We just took a gamble."
The contest had a tantalizing build-up. Sri Lanka had rested Mendis in their Super Four match against India, which, if they had won, would have virtually knocked India out of the competition. Instead they chose to rest Mendis, perhaps in order to spring a surprise in the final. It was only his eighth ODI and the challenge facing Mendis was formidable: he had to try and end Sehwag's aggression during the first Powerplay in a tournament final.
Perhaps out of over-confidence or merely because he treats spin with disdain, Sehwag tried to step out to Mendis' first ball but had to defend. He tried to do it again the very next delivery but this time Mendis beat him in flight and cut the leg break past the bat, leaving Kumar Sangakkara with an easy stumping.
In the overs to come, as if every wicket that fell to Mendis' guile enhanced his mystery in the Indian dressing-room, the batsmen played a succession of injudicious shots. Mendis' simplicity prevailed over all of them. He stuck to an immaculate in-between length, which made the batsman uncomfortable playing on either on the front or back foot. His stock delivery remained the straighter one, and the Indian batsmen reacted like rats to the Pied Piper.
Dhoni, whose innings stood out for its sensible approach, was mesmerised even at the press-conference. For every question demanding explanations for the defeat, he said the same answer: Mendis.
"Most of our batsmen couldn't pick him," Dhoni said. "We had never played him before. We had only seen videos and you can visualise and all, but he was difficult to pick out there in the middle. We never had any real reply against him."
Why did they make the defensive move of playing an extra batsman? "The main reason to add one batsman was Mendis," Dhoni said. "Our bowlers did well to restrict them to 273, and Mendis bowled well and that was the reason we lost.
"It was like you were playing something else, and the ball was something else. I won't really blame the batsman, we couldn't pick the deliveries. If you see our bowling, it was the best bowling line-up we could offer when we wanted one more extra batsman in the side. They tried their best and we could have got 274 but for the Mendis factor."
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo