Keeping the faith
India sweated, but held their nerve to shut the door on Sri Lanka's chances, with a win that tested the team's resources to the limit. In good batting conditions, on a fast outfield, the 261 that Sri Lanka managed was not enough to stave off defeat and keep the series alive. A team, it is said, is only as good as its weakest link, and India just did not seem to have one. Sri Lanka fought tooth and nail, but simply could not get through India's long list of batsmen, almost all of whom did their bit when called upon.
Leading 3-0, with several players coming into their own in different matches, Rahul Dravid backed his team to come through, and signalled as much at the start of the day by putting Sri Lanka in and exhorting his bowlers to make use of whatever little assistance was available early in the day. There was swing in the air early on, and Dravid attacked. And the response was fitting - Ajit Agarkar summed up the conditions, and his own role as a bowler, well enough to take five wickets, a catch, and effect a run out. It's a rarity to see an opening bowler operate with three slips in a one-dayer anywhere in the world, more so in the subcontinent. With two early breakthroughs in the bag - both Sanath Jayasuriya and Kumar Sangakkara lbw to Agarkar, one through swing and the other to seam movement - Dravid challenged his bowlers to keep the heat on, employing a 7-2 offside field.
Dravid was especially impressive in his rotation of bowlers. S Sreesanth bustled in, generated enough away swing at pace, often topping 140 kmph. But after three tight overs, where he conceded only five runs, he became overheated and was taken for 29 in his next two. Dravid quickly took him out of the attack, later using him in short bursts. In the case of Harbhajan Singh, it was the opposite. He became progressively more dangerous as he settled into a rhythm, and turned the screws, varying his pace, trajectory and angle of delivery. Dravid bowled him 10 overs on the trot, and the returns were excellent - only 35 runs conceded and the wicket of Tillakaratne Dilshan.
In all, seven bowlers were used, in 11 spells. Wickets fell in clusters at the top end and the tail, but four of the other spells yielded wickets. This meant that wickets fell at regular enough intervals, and only one significant partnership - 91 between Dilshan and Marvan Atapattu - was carded, making it impossible for Sri Lanka to put a big enough total on the board.
Dravid has always believed in Agarkar's ability, and marked him out as different for his sensible approach to many things, even if that did not always show in the way he played his cricket. On the day Agarkar was right on the ball. His run out of Nuwan Zoysa, fielding in his followthrough, pinning and nailing the stumps with a left-handed underarm, reflected his state of mind - in the game completely, confident enough to try something different, canny enough to execute it. Sure, Agarkar had a bit of luck, picking up a wicket off a full-toss, but you can't argue with 5 for 44.
But Dravid's work for the day was not done. Sachin Tendulkar, playing an uncharacteristic number of premeditated strokes, lost his off peg coming down the pitch and heaving to on. Yuvraj Singh, given a go at No.3, laced two powerful boundaries and departed attempting a third. At 34 for 2 India were in danger of putting themselves under pressure, and making the chase harder for themselves. Dravid walked out, and instantly pierced the field with an on-drive, a shot back past the bowler, and a flick through midwicket. He was fluent in his strokeplay and decisive with his footwork, and looked in complete control till he fell, against the run of play, for 63, with 82 still needed for victory.
In the past, Sri Lanka have been masters at seizing upon such opportunities, and India experts at collapsing in a heap when the pressure mounts in a tough chase. But this Indian team has characters in it who are desperate for success, and it showed, in the way first Venugopal Rao, then Suresh Raina, and finally Mahendra Dhoni, pressed forward, and ensured the matter was settled emphatically in India's favour. Three more matches beckon, and who knows, with the series sealed, India's young guns might just have more opportunity and freedom to express themselves.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo