Sublime Sehwag on a different plane
So far, this match has steadfastly refused to tilt in favour of any team. After another day of twists and turns, heroes and under-performers, and fascinating subplots, neither team can claim ascendancy. Barring rain, the Test looks poised to produce a result and the nicest thing about it is that it will be a while before a favourite can be identified.
At various points this Test has seemed headed in one direction before changing track. As if the two dramatic halves were not enough yesterday, there were two more today. Virender Sehwag and VVS Laxman were stringing together a delightful partnership in the morning session that promised to swell the Indian score to 400 and beyond when a miscued pull went to the man positioned precisely for that stroke and India lost their last six wickets for 51 runs. Add that to their first collapse and they had lost 10 wickets for 62 runs either side of two century partnerships.
And just when Kumar Sangakkara and Malinda Warnapura were stroking Sri Lanka towards a potentially match-wining position, Harbhajan Singh intervened with a wicket-taking spell that must rank among his best in recent years as Sri Lanka slipped from 137 for 1 to 192 for 5. Had a couple of chances been taken, and the odd decision gone in their favour, India would have been in control.
Worryingly for India, though, many of their guns continue to misfire. For close to three sessions they were kept in the match by Sehwag's brilliance. And on the field, Anil Kumble, who has 17 wickets at 54 in the year so far, had only one serious wicket-taking chance, a leg-before appeal against Warnapura, where the on-field umpire's decision was upheld by the television umpire, and rightly so.
But as it was yesterday, the morning belonged to Sehwag. He had promised his team a double-hundred and he never looked like reneging on it. Sri Lanka set deep fields to him from the start and time and again he found his space. There was an early charge against Vaas, who had shifted the balance yesterday with two late wickets, and a fierce cut sped past the man positioned at the point boundary to save it.
The feature of his innings was his remarkable certainty against the spinners. Throughout the morning, Muttiah Muralitharan bowled his off-spinners with six men on leg, and Sehwag kept hitting him through the off side against the spin, deftly manoeuvring the ball with an open blade. There were dabs for singles, a few punches past the cover fielder, and a breathtaking cover drive after dancing down the track. It was far from violent; instead it was artful, delicate and cheeky. And successful: Murali didn't beat him once.
It was Mendis who came the closest to taking his wicket but he failed in the face of Sehwag's determination to dominate him. When Mendis replaced Vaas at the Pavilion End, Sehwag cleared his front leg and slog-swept so hard the top edge nearly carried to the man on the fence - but ended up a six.
Sehwag has scored many gigantic hundreds but this must rank among his best. It came against massive odds, and it came when India needed a saviour after the two Sri Lankan spinners had humiliated their batsmen. Seen in isolation, he destroyed them. He scored 128 of his runs off the spinners; Mendis alone yielded 70 runs off 77 balls, including 3 sixes and five fours. He hit five more fours against Murali. It was a mark of his commitment to the team that he didn't attempt to reach his double hundred with a six and even denied himself an easy single on 199. It would be absolutely reasonable to say that throughout his innings he occupied a different plane from his team-mates.
|Sehwag has scored many gigantic hundreds but this must rank among his best. It came against massive odds, and it came when India needed a saviour after the two Sri Lankan spinners had humiliated their batsmen. Seen in isolation, he destroyed them|
It is to Mendis's credit that he retained his poise despite being roughed up by Sehwag. As he did yesterday, he provided the breakthrough that led to the collapse. Laxman was guilty of throwing his wicket away but Mendis had set the trap with a man midway to the mid-wicket boundary. Laxman managed to elude him once but not the second time. Once Laxman was removed, Mendis's deception was too much for the tailenders - and, on current form, Dinesh Karthik must count as one.
In the last session, India found an unlikely saviour in Harbhajan who - out of nowhere - rediscovered his wicket-taking form to halt Sri Lanka. Both he and Kumble had looked pedestrian until Harbhajan managed to break through against the run of play. That done, he was a transformed bowler. He varied both his length and pace, and began to give the ball rip. With sharper fielders close to the bat, he would have had a fiver by the close. But Mahela Jayawardene has survived to keep Sri Lanka in the game.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo