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October 25, 2005
As victories go, this was as emphatic as they come. Having pulverised Sri Lanka with the bat, Harbhajan Singh and Murali Kartik then decimated a strong line-up on a pitch where the ball turned and bounced as though it was the fourth day of a Test match. More importantly for Indian cricket, Sachin Tendulkar slotted back in as if he had never been away, and India's oft-misfiring batting suddenly clicked into top gear to devastating effect.
The last time India played here, they were ruthlessly dismissed by an Australian side intent on a first Test series win in India for 35 years, on a pitch that was as well-grassed and bouncy as the Gabba at its fast-bowler's-dream best. There was never any danger of such a surface being prepared for this one-day slugfest, and when Virender Sehwag swatted a short ball away at knee height early in the Indian innings, you knew that this would not be a day to remember for the swing-and-seam men.
It would have taken swing and seam of some quality to curtail Tendulkar in this frame of mind. After his failures in the Challenger Trophy, there were those who wondered whether he should be restored to the top of the order instead of doing his time in the Duleep Trophy. But with the biggest performers, and Steve Waugh has asserted that they haven't come any bigger than Tendulkar, the idea of warm-up games is almost laughable. Come the big occasion and the buzz that goes with it, and the big men invariably deliver.
There was also none of the circumspection that one has come to associate with Tendulkar in recent times. If anything, this was an innings laced with recklessness, including a charge at Chaminda Vaas that just eluded Kumar Sangakkara after taking the inside edge. But once the eye was in, the strokeplay was simply breathtaking. All the strokes that have contributed to the mystique down the years were in evidence, including some fabulous drives in the V and precise flicks over midwicket. And most encouragingly, he had the better of the tussle with Muttiah Muralitharan, with a couple of cheeky lap-sweeps making the master bowler smile ruefully.
Tendulkar, though, was not some Lone Ranger. After taking a few deliveries to get used to the sudden elevation, Irfan Pathan was in his element, striking the ball cleanly and with real venom as he and Tendulkar ran Sri Lanka ragged. Sri Lanka's slow-bowling support cast, so often their trump card in such conditions, were torn apart by a fusillade of thrilling shots, and by the time both men holed out in quick succession, the match was India's to lose.
Greg Chappell had asked Pathan to open in the Challenger Trophy, and the promotion clearly had his imprint, though Rahul Dravid spoke at the press conference of how it had been Tendulkar's idea. Such flexibility had been noticeably absent in the final months of the John Wright era, and if today's experiment was any indicator, then opponents will be spending a far greater time second-guessing Dravid's boys.
In recent times, this team has often spurned superb starts, but Dravid had no intention of letting that happen. He will never be a natural slogger and some of the strokes he muscled to the boundary in a 63-ball 85 were utterly out of character, slaps in the face for those who continue to stereotype him as a dour accumulator while forgetting how he has reinvented his one-day batting over the past few seasons.
In the field too, Dravid was immense. With Sangakkara and Sanath Jayasuriya going berserk, and S Sreesanth wilting under the pressure of a debut spell, it took a cool head and considerable faith to turn to spin, especially after the mauling received by the Sri Lankan slow bowlers. But within a few minutes, Harbhajan - finally bowling round the wicket to the left-handers - and Sehwag had put the boot on Sri Lankan throats, leaving Kartik to run riot while turning the ball nearly square.
There was a fine touch at the end too, with Dravid throwing the ball to Sreesanth so that he could grab the couple of wickets that can be all the difference between a traumatic debut and an encouraging one. The backslaps and words at the end, especially from the likes of Tendulkar, would have been worth as much as a five-wicket haul and the smiles all round at the end hinted that better times are not far away.
This Sri Lankan outfit, though, won't take this lying down, and India will do well to be wary of a strong riposte at Mohali. For the moment however, life couldn't get much better. A thumping win is always cause for celebration, and with Tendulkar also back in such glorious fashion, the Indian team's cup may well runneth over tonight.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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