India v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Delhi, 2nd day December 11, 2005

A tale of two spinners

Muttiah Muralitharan pulled the rug from under the Indians © Getty Images

An overwhelming explosion of positive emotion bathed the Indian team when the first day's play ended, with Sachin Tendulkar walking off the field head held high, bat in the air. On the second morning though Muttiah Muralitharan, a little champion in his own right, pulled the rug from under the Indians, with a manic twirl of the wrists. In one tantalising spell he inspired, no engineered, a comeback, getting Sri Lanka back in the game. And then, by the time the sun could set again, Anil Kumble had wrested the initiative back, despite quality innings from Marvan Atapattu and Mahela Jayawardene.

The morning passage of play was as much a testimony to the manner in which Test cricket can fool the best pundits, as it was to the skill of an experienced bowler making fools of batsmen wielding the willow at Test level. Mahendra Singh Dhoni's dismissal was characteristic of the way Muralitharan controlled proceedings. The manner in which Muralitharan exaggeratedly ripped his offbreaks when Dhoni first came to the crease gave the batsman a full preview of what was possible. And then, just as he struggled to adapt and come to grips with what he was up against, a perfectly pitched doosra, swerving in to the pads, exploded off a leg-stump line and took off the stick. It was a ball Shane Warne would have been proud of.

In 64 venomous balls sent down from the pavilion end, Muralitharan had 5 for 23. India's overnight position of strength - 245 for 3 with Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly at the crease - was decimated. Any thoughts of batting big, long and once were summarily banished. Ganguly, who had done well to put together a strong partnership with Tendulkar, found that even on a slow pitch, it is simply not good enough to play Muralitharan off the pitch. If you fail to read him out of the hand, as Ganguly did, then the doosra shoots you down like a bullet.

Unlike Saqlain Mushtaq, who preferred to bowl his doosras on off stump and tempt the batsman into a drive, inducing the edge and having him caught by keeper or slip, Murali uses the doosra as a means of getting wickets bowled and lbw. This would imply that batsmen get some kind of a hint of what is coming, just by the line of the ball. But that does not seem to be the case. Although, as Michael Atherton describes in such graphic detail in his autobiography, it is one thing knowing what is coming, and another entirely playing it. Atherton swears there were times when he sensed that Curtly Ambrose was going to bowl a yorker, got in the best position to play it, and still found two stumps out of the ground.

So it was with Muralitharan on the day. Sachin Tendulkar can consider himself unlucky to be adjudged lbw sweeping a ball from round the stumps, but the others will just shrug their shoulders, for there was little they could do with Muralitharan showing such control and hunger. In the end it was a familiar Lankan bowling card. Murali had bowled 38.4 of the 96.4 overs bowled, and taken 7 for 100, single-handedly getting the job done. India's 290 was well short of what was needed on this pitch, and had it not been for Irfan Pathan's early strikes, and Kumble's late charge, India would have been well and truly skewered by the master hunter.

Kumble's art, though no less lethal, was of a different kind. Realising that there was little bounce in the pitch - typically his greatest ally - he cut down on pace, kept the ball full, and used the quick, straight ball as sparingly as possible. With Jayawardene in ominously good touch, and Atapattu middling the ball decently after a streaky start, Sri Lanka strung together a 113-run partnership for the 3rd wicket. Kumble had to endure 10 wicketless overs, but he did typically well, not flagging, not losing sight of what he needed to do each time he reached the top of his mark.

Finally, in the last session of the day, Kumble had his say. With four wickets in 36 balls, of which only Tillakaratne Dilshan could complain being hard done by, he had brought Sri Lanka from 175 for 2 to 198 for 6, where they ended, with 290 looking a long way off. Atapattu had led the fight with 88, but his wicket, caught brilliantly at short-leg by Gautam Gambhir, falling towards close and marking the end of play, ensured India had the upper hand. In their own ways, two spinners - different in method but capable of inspiring the same madness - had shown why even a momentary lapse of concentration when batting against them, can cause a dramatic swing in play.

Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo