India hold nerve and seal series
In a match with many ebbs and flows, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Suresh Raina provided the decisive twist as India clinched a four-wicket win at Pune to seal an unbeatable 4-0 lead in the seven-match series. Chasing 262 for victory, India were coasting at 176 for 3 before they lost three wickets for four runs to slump to 180 for 6. With the pressure mounting and the asking rate climbing, Raina, in only his fifth ODI, made an unbeaten 39 as he and Dhoni (45 not out) kept their wits about them with a magnificent 82-run unbeaten stand.
The match produced many fine performances, but till Raina and Dhoni got together, none of them were enough to completely snatch the game away from the opposition - Marvan Atapattu broke out of his poor run with a fluent 87 from No.5; Ajit Agarkar bowled superbly with the new ball and at the death to finish with five wickets; Rahul Dravid anchored the run-chase with a typically controlled 63; and Muttiah Muralitharan got Sri Lanka back into what seemed a lost cause with a superb spell in the middle overs.
However, with 93 balls to go, India seemed to have lost the plot as they needed 82 more, with only four wickets in hand. Muralitharan was in full cry, India had just lost the batsman who had shepherded the run-chase, and both batsmen were new to the crease.
If they were bogged down by the pressure, it certainly didn't show, as Raina and Dhoni slowly whittled down the deficit with common-sense cricket. With Atapattu not going on an all-out attack, there were still plenty of singles available, and both batsmen picked up gaps and ran hard, eschewing the big shots - till the target had been reduced to 12, Dhoni and Raina only hit three fours between them. Dhoni then finished it off with a gusto, smashing Russel Arnold for successive sixes to wrap it up with 26 balls to spare.
None of that excitement seemed on the cards when Dravid was at the crease, keeping the asking rate in control first with Virender Sehwag and then with Venugopal Rao. Coming in to bat after Sachin Tendulkar had fallen to Vaas for the ninth time and Yuvraj Singh's promotion to No. 3 had failed, Dravid got into his stride right from the start, placing the ball in the gaps, running hard, and putting away the loose balls magnificently for boundaries.
Even when Sehwag finally fell for 48, after surviving two reprieves on 8 and 20, Rao proved to be an ideal foil for Dravid with an innings of unusual aggression. His 38 came off just 41 balls, and included a couple of outrageous hoicks over point off Farveez Maharoof - easily the weakest link in the Sri Lankan attack.
At 176 for 3, India only required 86 from 19 overs - an asking rate of 4.5 - with seven wickets in hand. What looked like a walk in the park suddenly became tense business as Muralitharan, who had had a quiet series thus far, got into the act, getting two wickets in three overs. In between, Fernando had nailed the crucial wicket of Dravid, and the score was a far less imposing 180 for 6, before Dhoni and Raina decided to stamp their authority on the game.
If Dhoni and Raina were the heroes with the bat, then the star in the field was undoubtedly Agarkar. He bowled superbly with the new ball, getting it to swing back into the left-handers, to win two lbws early, and then returned late in the innings to wrap up the tail and finish with outstanding figures of 5 for 44, the best bowling performance in an ODI at the Nehru Stadium. As if the contribution with the ball wasn't enough, Agarkar also effected a run-out and took a catch in what was a thoroughly profitable morning's work.
That Sri Lanka still managed to post a competitive score was largely due to Atapattu. Struggling for form and confidence in this series, he had only scored 22 in his first three innings, prompting a drop to No. 5 in the order. Atapattu came in with the team in disarray at 51 for 3, and went about rebuilding the innings with typical serenity. He took his time to get his fluency back, contributing just 39 in a 98-run fourth-wicket stand with Tillakaratne Dilshan (52), but after Dilshan left, Atapattu took charge. Having spent enough time on a pitch which was a belter, he slowly unfurled strokes which had the unmistakable Atapattu stamp - the picture-perfect cover-drives, the square-cuts with the glorious flourish in the follow-through, and the wristy flick off the hips were all on view.
After flailing at the ball in desperation in the early part of his innings, Dilshan settled down and unfurled some gorgeous strokes on the off side - his first 25 deliveries fetched him just six, the next 43 brought him 46 - to lay a sound platform for the rest of the batsmen. With Russel Arnold chipping in with a useful 32, Sri Lanka were comfortably placed at 222 for 4 after 42, when it all went pear-shaped: the last eight overs produced only 39, and when Atapattu looks back at the game, those 48 balls were the ones which probably cost Sri Lanka the match.
Kumar Sangakkara lbw b Agarkar 8 (17 for 1)
Trapped in front by one which swung back in late
Sanath Jayasuriya lbw b Agarkar 16 (36 for 2)
Beaten by another indipper
Upul Tharanga c Agarkar b Sreesanth 20 (51 for 3)
Top-edged a pull to fine leg
Tillakaratne Dilshan c Tendulkar b Harbhajan 52 (148 for 4)
A leading edge to an attempted flick went straight to cover
Russel Arnold b Pathan 32 (231 for 5)
Done in by a perfect yorker
Farveez Maharoof b Agarkar 3 (237 for 6)
Missed a full-toss
Marvan Atapattu c & b Sehwag 87 (241 for 7)
Superb one-handed catch as a full-toss was slapped right back to the bowler
Muttiah Muralitharan b Agarkar 9 (252 for 8)
Backed away to smash a full delivery and missed
Nuwan Zoysa run out (Agarkar) 2 (261 for 9)
Down the pitch attempting a sharp single and sent back
Chaminda Vaas c Dhoni b Agarkar 11 (261 all out)
Swung at one outside off and edged it
Sachin Tendulkar b Vaas 11 (23 for 1)
Charged down the track and missed
Yuvraj Singh c Dilshan b Zoysa 10 (34 for 2)
Superb low catch at backward point off a square-drive
Virender Sehwag c Arnold b Muralitharan 49 (112 for 3)
Guided a doosra straight to slip
Venugopal Rao c Sangakkara b Muralitharan 38 (176 for 4)
Edged a doosra
Rahul Dravid c Vaas b Fernando 63 (180 for 5)
Miscued a hook to long leg
Irfan Pathan c Sangakkara b Muralitharan 0 (180 for 6)
Nicked one that turned away
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo