August 30, 2001

Sri Lanka's batsmen construct winning platform

Muttiah Muralitharan's exploits on Wednesday were put firmly in perspective on Thursday as India's bowlers toiled fruitlessly while Sri Lanka's batsmen cruised past the tourist's first innings total. At the end of the second day's play, the home side were in a position of seemingly indomitable strength in this decisive final Test in Colombo.

Indeed, apart from Muralitharan, no bowler has consistently threatened on an easy paced SSC pitch that is by far the best batting strip of the series. Even so, Sri Lanka's batting has been decidedly shaky in the recent past and no sensible person could have ruled out another meek performance today before the start of play.

They, though, showed none of the recklessness that had lost them the Kandy Test and, led by a seventh Test century by Marvan Atapattu and an unbeaten 95 from Mahela Jawardene, they batted resolutely to end the day on 323 for five, already leading by 89 runs.

Atapattu had previously made scores of 33, 39 and 45 in the series, but this time he didn't throw away his wicket after getting set set and ground his way to a five-hour 108. It was typical Atapattu, full of text book cover drives played with a perpendicular front elbow, and efficient clips off his pads. No frills, just unyielding, determined, compassionless batsmanship.

He batted as if he expected to score his fifth double century. When he finally reached his hundred he only half waved his bat in acknowledgement of the applause, before tying up his bootlaces and preparing for his 202nd ball.

It was no surprise then that he was only dismissed after another poor decision by South African umpire David Orchard (earlier in the day he had refused calls for a replay when Jayasuriya had been caught off his boot), who upheld a bat-pad appeal when the ball had brushed pad and thigh, to end a 133-run third wicket partnership with Jaywardene.

Jayawardene's innings, in contrast, may have been built upon a sound technique, but it was full of glossy shots, including delicate late cuts, punching on-drives and one imperious lofted straight six off the first ball after tea.

After the demise of Atapattu, Russel Arnold came to the crease with his place in the team no longer guaranteed after a string of low scores and no Test century for 16 months. He showed no signs of pressure, though, as he raced to 31 off 39 balls in an entertaining 58-run partnership with Jayawardene. He, though, was dismissed by an excellent delivery from Venkatesh Prasad that cut back off the seam and rattled into Arnold's off stump in the final hour to leave Sri Lanka on 310 for four.

Strangely, Sri Lanka then tried to protect number six batsman Hashan Tillakaratne, who should have been itching to bat on such a featherbed of a pitch. The plan backfired and India were gifted the wicket of night-watchman Dulip Liyanage moments before the close.

Earlier in the day, Sanath Jayasuriya had scored a breezy 30 before he chopped a delivery from Prasad onto his stumps, as the openers added 35 runs in the first 38 minutes of the day, extending their opening partnership to 48.

Kumar Sangakkara and Atapattu then played studiously until the lunch interval, determined not to throw their wickets away. They scored 27 runs in the second hour of the morning. After the break Sangakkara started with a spurt of boundaries, but as his half-century loomed he flashed loosely at a wide delivery from Prasad and edged to Hemang Badani at second slip, to make way for the Jayawardene-Atapattu partnership. He had scored 47 and hit nine fours. Sri Lanka were 119 for two.

Prasad was India's best bowler, maintaining a consistent line and length to pick up three for 54 in his 20 overs. He was not given much support, though, by his fast bowling partner Zaheer Khan, who repeatedly over pitched and was severely punished, conceding five runs per over in his four spells.

Harbhajan Singh too was disappointing. For much of the day he looked like he was going to end up wicket-less and he would have, had it not been for the blunder from Orchard and the appearance of a sacrificial night watchman. Amazingly, his two wickets today represents his best haul of the series and his wicket tally is just five. He rarely threatened, as he failed to extract anywhere near the degree of turn that Muralitharan conjured up on Wednesday. He was too flat and frequently dropped short.

Leg-spinner Bahutule, at least, gave the ball some loop and he could so easily have ended up with a wicket in his first over if Sameer Dighe, who had a messy day behind the stumps, had not fumbled a stumping chance off Sangakkara just before lunch.

Sri Lanka's 89-run lead looks ominous, but Ganguly will be revving up his team tomorrow by reminding them of Sri Lanka's second innings slump on the third day in Kandy, when they had fecklessly thrown away the initiative. India can still get back into this match by dismissing the Sri Lankan lower-order cheaply in the morning. The pitch remains excellent for batting and Sri Lanka won't be comfortable chasing a sporting target.