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December 21, 2005
Many expected this day to be the last of the Test series, but Sri Lanka's batsmen showed that they weren't ready to lie down and allow the Indian spinners to trample all over them. Except for Thilan Samaraweera, the top six batsmen lasted at least 50 deliveries, while three of them went on to get fairly substantial scores. Sadly for them, their most determined batting display of the series came far too late in the day, and India shouldn't have too many problems in wrapping up a 2-0 series win on the last day.
Sample these numbers: 97, 100, 105, 201. The first two are the contributions of India's top five wickets in the two innings; the next two are Sri Lanka's. There's no doubt about who won that battle - in Sri Lanka's two innings, there were six scores of more than 40 by their top six; for the Indians, there were only two. The problem for Sri Lanka in this match hasn't been a lack of starts - it has been a lack of conversion: of those six 40-plus scores, the highest for the Lankans were the two 65s from Tillakaratne Dilshan, while India's two significant contributors, VVS Laxman and Yuvraj Singh, made 104 and 75. Not only have the Sri Lankans been guilty of not making the starts count, they have also lost almost all the key moments when the game has been in the balance. India's last five wickets added more than 72% of their total runs in the match, and that has made all the difference between an even contest and a lopsided one.
If Sri Lanka managed to extend their battle into the final day, it was largely due to the stout-hearted efforts of Dilshan and Mahela Jaywardene. Dilshan's talent as a freestroking batsman has never been in doubt. Since bursting into the international scene with an unbeaten 163 against Zimbabwe six years ago, Dilshan has been rated among the best young batsmen in Sri Lanka. However, a lack of consistency and maturity - he was only 23 then - led to a slump and nearly two years on the sidelines. Now 29, Dilshan has clearly flowered into a far more reliable batsman - of his last 12 Test innings, only one has ended for less than 30.
As in the first innings, Dilshan's display against the spinners was superb. On a pitch with inconsistent bounce and appreciable turn, the key was in waiting for the ball and not committing to a stroke - Dilshan did that with exceptional skill. Both Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh extracted plenty of bounce on occasions, but Dilshan rode it and kept it down, or made room and wristily knocked it away for runs. And when Kumble tried to spear it straight and fast to win a bat-pad or an lbw, Dilshan kept his legs out of the way, and played, almost always, with the willow. A few more such performances, and a promotion up the batting order is guaranteed.
The other significant batting display came from Jayawardene, another batsman who has promise enough to be labelled Aravinda de Silva's heir, but has seldom delivered on the promise. Like Mohammad Yousuf, who is easy on the eye but not always the best player in a crisis, Jayawardene has been struggling to move up a grade from a good batsman to an outstanding one. The career stats for both Jayawardene and Yousuf are remarkably similar - both average 48, with nearly the same number of fifty-plus scores. However, unlike Pakistan, Sri Lanka don't have an Inzamam-ul-Haq to play the lead hand almost every time. In this series, Jayawardene has scored four half-centuries in five innings, but none of them have been greater than 71. If Sri Lanka's problem has been conversion of starts, then Jayawardene has typified it.
For the Indians, neither Kumble nor Harbhajan was at the top of his game. Harbhajan dragged it short plenty of times, while Kumble's length went awry far too often as well. However, the 508-run cushion is such a huge one that none of that should come in the way of a 2-0 series win and a move up to second place in the ICC Test rankings.
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