Dhoni scripts magnificent victory
Dhoni's blistering onslaught completely put to shade another masterclass by Kumar Sangakkara, who held Sri Lanka's batting together in a superbly paced 138. On a sluggish pitch, Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene (71 off 70) justified Marvan Atapattu's decision to bat first after winning the toss, but what seemed a competitive total was rendered completely inadequate by Dhoni's pyrotechnics.
He came in to bat after Sachin Tendulkar - the hero of the first two matches - had been dismissed off the fifth ball of the match, but within minutes the deathly silence in the stands was replaced by raucous cheers as Dhoni got down to business. In the first game of the series, the Indian think-tank had plumped for Irfan Pathan at No. 3; this time, with the target a stiff one, Dhoni was the chosen one, and once again the move turned out to be an inspired one.
On a pitch lacking in pace and bounce, Dhoni's strategy was simple: hit on the up, through the line of the ball, and use the feet to advance down the pitch when it isn't pitched up. He took care of the new-ball threat that Chaminda Vaas posed, twice smashing over extra-cover for six, and when Atapattu decided to hold back the second Powerplay and bring on Muttiah Muralitharan in the 11th over, Dhoni showed he could combine brain with brawn, playing the ball in the gaps for singles and waiting for the Powerplays to again launch into the attack. Then, despite struggling with cramps which forced him to score his last 53 runs with a runner, Dhoni stuck on and helped a jittery Venugopal Rao stay at the crease to guide India home.
When he'd made his first ODI century, Dhoni had shared a 96-run stand with Virender Sehwag (incidentally, Tendulkar made 2 in that game as well); this time, the two put on 92 in a stand which laid a perfect platform for the run-chase. And when Sehwag left after playing second fiddle, Rahul Dravid came along and did the perfect support act.
Once Vaas had been seen off, the biggest threat which loomed for the Indians was Muralitharan, and though he got two wickets the Indians were also able get 46 from him, most of which came when he was forced to bowl with field restrictions. Atapattu opted for the second Powerplay between over 17 and 21, and the Indians immediately upped the ante, forcing 46 off those five overs, 32 of them to Dhoni, who read Murali's doosra quite comfortably, waiting for the turn to work him off the back foot, or using his feet to smother the spin. And Upul Chandana was hardly a threat, as Dhoni swung him for a couple of sixes over square leg, and never allowed him to settle into a rhythm.
Sangakkara and Jayawardene came together when the innings had only yielded 77 from the first 20 overs. Sangakkara played the steadying hand, but the batsman who turned it around for Sri Lanka was Jayawardene. He got his innings going with a clever dab to the third-man fence off only his second delivery, from JP Yadav, and that was an ominous portent of things to come. The slow pitch made driving a difficult proposition, but Jayawardene showed consummate skill in tackling these conditions, using his supple wrists to deflect the ball behind the stumps.
The most impressive aspect of their 155-run stand was the manner in which they dismantled the slow bowlers, especially Murali Kartik. Late-cuts to third man, inside-out lofted hits over cover, cheeky reverse-sweeps and chipped shots over midwicket were all part of the mix as Kartik was left clueless on a pitch which was expected to offer him more assistance.
Once the momentum had been snatched, Sri Lanka kept it going even after Jayawardene fell, as Farveez Maharoof bludgeoned an unbeaten 33 off 16, while Sangakkara creamed the fast bowlers with relish in the final overs. The last 10 fetched an incredible 104, and with plenty of slow bowlers in their ranks, Sri Lanka would have fancied their chances of reducing the deficit in this series. Then Dhoni decided to walk out with a script of his own.
Sanath Jayasuriya b Agarkar 15 (31 for 1)
Dragged a good-length ball outside off back onto his stumps
Marvan Atapattu c Dhoni b Yadav 17 (77 for 2)
Reached out for a wide one and got a faint tickle
Mahela Jaywardene c Sehwag b Agarkar 71 (228 for 3)
A lofted hit straight to third man
Tillakaratne Dilshan lbw b Sehwag 3 (240 for 4)
Missed a sweep shot
Sachin Tendulkar c Sangakkara b Vaas 2 (7 for 1)
Chased a wide one and fell to a superb diving catch
Virender Sehwag lbw b Murali 39 (99 for 2)
Foxed by the doosra, while attempting a sweep
Rahul Dravid c & b Muralitharan 28 (185 for 3)
Got a leading edge while attempting a flick
Yuvraj Singh b Dilshan 18 (250 for 4)
Beaten by one which pitched on leg and took middle
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo