Laxman leads Indian fightback
India 247 for 6 (Laxman 71*, Pathan 39*) v Sri Lanka
Test cricket reveals character, and the first day of the Ahmedabad Test had ample displays of it. First, Sri Lanka shrugged off an indifferent start to reduce India to 97 for 5 - this, after their first-choice new-ball bowlers had opted out of the game due to illness. But despite some sharp and committed bowling, India clambered back, led to respectability, at 247 for 6, by VVS Laxman's 71 not out, and his partnerships of 86 with MS Dhoni and an unbroken 64 with Irfan Pathan. It was a gripping day of cricket.
It began with a notification of absence. Rahul Dravid had backed out earlier due to gastroenteritis - Sehwag captained in his place, as Kaif came into the XI - and Sri Lanka found themselves without Chaminda Vaas, Dilhara Fernando and Avishka Gunawardene. After Sehwag won the toss and opted to bat, Sri Lanka's bowling did, initially, appear inadequate.
Malinga, his steady run-up a contrast to the slingshotty flamboyance of his action, was wayward, and kept straying down the leg side. Maharoof was steady, moved the ball both ways off the seam, and mixed it up well. But the batsmen - Gautam Gambhir had been preferred to Wasim Jaffer -- negotiated him comfortably, the only exception being when Sehwag got a thin inside-edge of an incoming ball, which fell short of Kumar Sangakkara, the wicketkeeper.
It was eventually Malinga who struck. He kept testing the batsmen with short balls, and Gambhir, fiesty and undaunted by the precarious state of his Test-match career, pulled him a couple of times. But valour got him nowhere. Having made 19, he tried to hook a short ball that was well outside the off stump, from outside the line, and the ball ballooned up in the air limply. Upul Tharanga, making his Test debut, took an easy catch at midwicket (31 for 1).
Sehwag and Laxman took India to lunch, which came after just an hour of play because overnight dew caused a late start, after which Sri Lanka lifted their game. Malinga's action makes it just that bit harder to pick up the ball early, and perhaps that caused Sehwag to stay rooted to the crease to a ball he should have gone forward to, and playing down the wrong line. The ball clipped his pads and bowled him for 20 (52 for 2).
Malinga kept running in hard, testing the batsmen with a lot of short deliveries, while Maharoof stuck superbly to a tight line just outside off. There was some reverse swing in the air, and the runs slowed. Malinga tested Tendulkar by shifting round the wicket and peppering him with bouncers directed, from wide of the leg stump, at his body. But Tendulkar was unfazed.
Tendulkar greeted Muttiah Muralitharan's advent into the attack with a lofted four to long-on, but was otherwise a picture of caution. He was on the back foot more often than not, playing as late as he could, generally turning the ball, with the spin, onto the leg side. It wasn't with spin that Murali beat him, though, but with bounce, as Tendulkar was surprised by one that snorted off the pitch and took an edge onto the pads. Jehan Mubarak completed the dismissal, with a well-timed dive at forward short leg (88 for 3).
Yuvraj Singh, who wasn't completely comfortable against Murali in the last Test, didn't last long, stepping forward and edging a good-length ball (88 for 4). Mohammad Kaif went soon after, pulling Malinga Bandara uppishly to midwicket. (97 for 5).
It is rare for the advent of a No. 7 batsman to excite the crowds and worry the bowlers. It happens with Adam Gilchrist, and it may well happen with Mahendra Singh Dhoni as the years go by. He strode out without a trace of fear, played out the overs until tea, and changed the tempo of the game afterwards.
Every movement of Dhoni at the crease signalled intent: whether going forward or back, he was decisive in his movement. Whenever bat met ball, it was emphatic, whether in defence or attack. He used his feet but kept his head; he was aggressive but did not take any risks. Sometimes he smashed the ball through empty spaces in the field; at other times, he used the empty space in the air, lofting without inhibition or fear of human intervention.
Laxman had been 23 not out when Dhoni walked out to bat. Soon, Laxman was 50 not out and Dhoni on 49. But, with his second consecutive Test half-century in sight, Dhoni went back to a full offspinner from Murali, and was trapped plumb in front. (183 for 6).
Laxman had a lucky escape just after that, when a bat-pad catch off Bandara was negated because the umpire didn't notice the edge. But apart from that, he was a picture of solidity, as wall-like, to reprise a familiar cliché, as the man who normally bats at No. 3 for India. He battled on, immensely watchful, but throwing in the occasional delectable stroke to remind us of his art.
Pathan struck some lusty blows, and India reached the end of the day having recovered much of the ground they had lost earlier. The pitch was likely to slow down as the match went on, and the odd ball was already keeping low. And the players headed for the pavilion in the knowledge that that the game was precariously poised and, like the last Test, could swing in the course of a session. Fun seemed certain to come on the second day.
Gautam Gambhir c Tharanga b Malinga 19 (31 for 1)
Mis-hit hook, caught at midwicket
Virender Sehwag b Malinga 20 (52 for 2)
Caught on the crease, playing down the wrong line, bowled off his pads
Sachin Tendulkar c Mubarak b Muralitharan 23 (88 for 3)
Surprised by a snorter, playing across, inside edge to pad, and then to forward short leg
Yuvraj Singh c Samaraweera b Muralitharan 0 (88 for 4)
Playing forward and edging
Mohammad Kaif c Atapattu b Bandara 4 (97 for 5)
Uppish pull to midwicket
MS Dhoni lbw Muralitharan 49 (183 for 6)
Played back to a full offspinner, trapped plumb in front
Amit Varma does odd jobs around Cricinfo, which includes writing the blog 23 Yards