India v Sri Lanka, 3rd ODI, Jaipur October 31, 2005

The wheel turns, and how



Mahendra Singh Dhoni's blistering 183 was the highest score by a wicketkeeper in a one-day international © Getty Images

There was a time in the mid-nineties when Sri Lanka were the masters of the run-chase, and no total, especially on subcontinental featherbeds, was beyond them. The overwhelming blaze at the start would be followed by judicious strike rotation. Bowlers would be singled out and trampled upon. Field placements hardly mattered. What Mahendra Singh Dhoni did to Sri Lanka was similar to what Sri Lanka, under Arjuna Ranatunga, did to most, and some controlled methods amid electrifying mayhem put everything else in the shade.

Dhoni walked out with a scythe but he didn't just blindly lash out. This wasn't an exhibition of daredevilry, merely an assured butchery. Sent in at No.3 - India's third No.3 in as many games and a triumph of the flexibility policy that both the captain and coach have been talking about - he ensured that there were no half measures. When the ball was wide, he creamed it crisp; when full, he unleashed blistering drives; when slightly short, he backed himself and hit through the line; when shorter, he trusted the pitch and flayed it square. Spinners erring in length were brutalised and fielders in the boundary had to merely watch the balls sail into the screaming crowd.

With his dashing hundred against Pakistan at Vishakapatnam earlier this year, Dhoni showed the zing he can add to this batting line-up. This sizzler at Jaipur, when he showed he was willing to pick and choose the deliveries and yet score just as quick, should go a long way in pitchforking him into the Test line-up as well. He has shown he can tear open first-class attacks and he has shown he can replicate that in the one-dayers. His wicketkeeping too has improved considerably. Either he will fail or turn into a spectacular success at the Test level. It's a gamble India may have to take in the near future.

The really heart-rending blows were struck against the Sri Lankan spinners, for whom it's been a harrowing series. Lions at home with their squeeze tactics, none of them have had an impact in the first three games. Murali's magic hasn't had its effect while the rest have been chewed up without any fuss. So far, Harbhajan Singh, who turned in a fine spell today, conceding just 30, has outbowled them by quite a distance.

Despite the sorry state of the bowling, Sri Lanka had a lot to smile about in the morning. With a superbly-paced knock, Sangakkara provided them with what they had been missing all series. At Nagpur, he was the swordsman who attempted the impossible; at Mohali, he did his bit amid the wreckage; here, he was the pilot who guided them with responsibility. After a few opening flourishes, racing to 30 at nearly a run-a-ball, he bided his time against good restrictive bowling and attacking field placements. Unlike Marvan Atapattu, who took an age to find his feet and ultimately slipped, Sangakkara made sure the skyscrapers were erected.

Sri Lanka managed to rise from the middle-overs rut owing to a trigger from Mahela Jayawardene. With an impish, exasperating approach, Jayawardene literally stole the initiative from India. Shuffling across the crease, skipping down the track, angling his bat, chipping over the infield, surviving two dropped chances and scampering throughout, he disturbed the rhythm that the bowlers had settled into. At the 30-over stage the run-rate was a shade below four. After 40, they were rolling at nearly five an over as Sangakkara's in-your-face crisp striking and Jayawardene's hustling methods set them on course.

Sri Lanka's display was a marked improvement after their previous capitulations, with the senior batsmen standing up on the big stage and executing the task with intensity. But on the field, they were caught unawares by a vicious counterattack, delivered with the efficacy that Aravinda de Silva and the rest from that glorious batch of '96 would readily applaud.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo