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India's winning margin, a walloping 188 runs, makes depressing reading from a Sri Lankan perspective
December 14, 2005
India's winning margin, a walloping 188 runs, makes depressing reading from a Sri Lankan perspective. The reality, though, is that Sri Lanka had a fine opportunity to win this match thanks to some solid top order batting early on and the remarkable wiles of Muttiah Muralitharan, who produced a truly superb performance and one of his finest ever spells to bowl out India for 290 on the second morning of this Delhi Test.
Sri Lanka were dominating the match midway through the second afternoon, 175 for 2 and just 95 runs adrift of India's total. Mahela Jayawardene was batting serenely, forcing India's bowlers onto the defensive with his positive approach, and Marvan Atapattu, ignoring the pain and stiffness of his increasingly worrisome lower back, was ensconced in the crease at the other end, apparently laying out the tablecloth for a lengthy feast. A large lead beckoned.
But one moment of misjudgement from Jayawardene changed the game as Anil Kumble deceived him in the air. Jayawardene bent down one leg and tried to sweep, a decision that he normally plays expertly, but the delivery was fuller than anticipated and gun barrel straight. He missed and the finger was raised. India were back in the game and Kumble, the Man-of-the- Match, seized the moment, ripping a fast leg break to splatter Thilan Samaraweera's stumps and a top spinner past Tillakaratne Dilshan's defensive bat.
The bat-pad dismissal of Atapattu in the dying minutes of the day left India in charge and Sri Lanka despondent. They had lost four wickets for 23 runs, throwing away five hours of hard work and domination in one frenetic wasteful last hour. Jayawardene must have been inconsolable at the close, the contentment of another Test half century washed away by the frustration and bitter disappointment of one misjudgement that cut off the chance for a match-winning hundred and triggered his team's swift demise.
The road back for the Sri Lankans was always going to be difficult on the third day, starting as they did from 198 for 6. They needed to draw level or very close to India's first innings of 290 as batting last against Kumble and Harbhajan Singh was always going to be fraught with danger. Alas, the eventual 60-run deficit as the lower middle order resistance melted away left Sri Lanka with a mountainous task to save the game.
Having been set an improbable survival target of 436 in approximately 140 overs, Sri Lanka were once again offered a flicker of hope while Atapattu and Kumar Sangakkara stood together on the fourth afternoon. Alas, on 109 for 1, Sangakkara nibbled at an Agarkar delivery, an away swinger that could have been safely left alone. It turned out to be a catalyst for another slide as Atapattu, Samaraweera and nightwatchman Malinga Bandara were all knocked over before the close.
As India polished up the tail on the final day after some stubborn resistance from Jayawardene and Dilshan in the morning, the overriding feeling was: what if? Small moments turn matches and small decisions turn matches. If Jayawardene's first-innings dismissal makes him one of the most visible culprits, the selectors are the most culpable. They are the ones that refused to pick Sri Lanka's best side and left Atapattu with the problem of plugging holes in his top order.
Winning in India is incredibly difficult. Australia rate it as the toughest challenge in cricket. Few nations achieve it and Sri Lanka are still to win a single Test. This being the case, it is utterly unfathomable why they decided to experiment in this series. Surely, this is the tour where you want your finest and most experienced cricketers. Sod their age - experiment against Bangladesh or Zimbabwe if you must, but not on the home patch of one of your fiercest rivals.
The selectors - the Ashantha de Mel-led committee, that time - made the same blunder during Sri Lanka's last Asian tour, against Pakistan in November 2004, where Atapattu was forced to blood a youngster (ironically, Jehan Mubarak on that occasion too, which must have been incredibly hard for him too and hardly helpful for his career) against his will after Dilshan, the scorer of Test hundreds against England and Australia during the preceding 12 months, was unceremoniously axed without consultation.
The sight of Avishka Gunawardene walking out to bat in Jayasuriya's absence must be a regular source of amusement in the Indian dressing room. Gunawardene is a fierce hitter of the cricket ball and a regular shredder of average bowlers. But his cement-like footwork leaves him exposed against top-flight bowling and during this series he has looked out of his depth once again. His inclusion in the side, ahead of Jayasuriya, and then ahead of Ian Daniel and even Michael Vandort is baffling.
Mubarak's inclusion is equally mystifying considering what is an appalling first-class record with just one hundred thus far in 120 innings. To his credit, he hung in doggedly for his 29 not out in the first innings. But you wonder what someone like Russel Arnold would have done in the same situation and you can't help but conclude that he could have absorbed the pressure better and turned things around, taking responsibility and relieving the lower order. We will never know, of course, because he is playing club cricket in Colombo.
It does not help that the explanations for the selector's decisions appear to change each week. One minute Jayasuriya is dropped for poor form and two media releases later it is because of poor fitness. No explanation was offered for the non-inclusion of Arnold either. Surely it is madness that selectors, immensely powerful individuals with a country's cricketing set-up, are not even expected to explain the rationale behind their decisions?
If Sri Lanka lose this series - and the writing is on the wall because Ahmedabad can be expected to be a featherbed - then it is the selectors and not just the players and the management team who should shoulder responsibility and, if necessary, the blame. The time has come for Sri Lanka's selectors to be properly accountable and not hide behind closed doors. Sadly, this is a pipedream.
Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondentFeeds: Charlie Austin
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