Sangakkara powers Sri Lanka to thrilling win
A fighting century from Kumar Sangakkara set it up but it was an outstanding spell of death bowling and brilliant catching under pressure that enabled Sri Lanka to pull off a tense five-run win in a Rajkot heart-stopper. Needing 23 in 4.3 overs, with five wickets in hand, India looked set to wrap it up but they were thwarted at the finish line by a team that simply refused to give in.
The old firm of Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar combined in an exciting counterattacking stand, allowing India to overcome a couple of early blows, but their dismissals allowed Sri Lanka a sniff. The 66-run stand between India's two wicketkeepers - Dinesh Karthik and Mahendra Singh Dhoni - appeared to be the last act of the day but it took a fast, searing, yorker from Lasith Malinga, the quickest bowler on show, to instigate a twist. Farveez Maharoof, who was justly rewarded with three wickets, continued the choke operation before Sanath Jayasuriya, the king of stranglers, completed the asphyxiation.
A top edge from Harbhajan Singh was pouched splendidly by Mahela Jayawardene running back towards third man but the catch that sealed the match arrived in the penultimate ball. Dhoni, who'd declined two singles in Jayasuriya's final over and needed six runs in two balls, received one which was in the slot and swatted it high to extra cover. That was when Maharoof, running back from cover, braved a possible head-on collision with Upul Tharanga, running in the opposite direction, and pulled off a sensational catch to seal the match. Sreesanth will rightly argue that the last ball should have been signaled wide but even he will admit that Javed Miandad-esque heroics are beyond him.
Until those final moments, Sri Lanka never appeared in line for a win but the ingredients were always promising. Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan turned a potentially modest total into a competitive one, the former through a skillful century and the other through a dashing 58. Once his colleagues had made their exit with some leaden-footed strokeplay, too eager to play their shots when caution would have served them best, Sangakkara gave a master lesson in handling a crisis. Blending peachy drives with solid defence, he ensured that he saw out the fast bowlers before taking on the spinners. He didn't spare the loose offerings - tonking a long-hop from Anil Kumble over the midwicket fence and thumping half-volleys majestically through the covers - and found an able ally in Dilshan.
Both went after the spinners, on a pitch that offered just a hint of turn, and put Sri Lanka on track at the halfway mark. Dilshan was the more attacking of the two, quick to pounce on anything short and pummeling drives through a speedy outfield, and their 108-run stand came at just the right time for Sri Lanka. It took a mesmeric doosra from Harbhajan to undo Dilshan - clueless against the one that turned away and clipped top of off - but nothing could halt Sangakkara's surge.
He stepped it up once he was past 75, clattering Sachin Tendulkar for a six over midwicket. Kumble was mangled in the 48th over - hoicked for two towering sixes, one of which brought up his hundred - before Munaf was at the receiving end of a furious hit over long-on. It was his sixth one-day hundred, and second against India, and had the satisfaction of making his first matchwinning hundred against major opposition.
Yet, 257 didn't appear enough on this pitch, especially when Tendulkar and Ganguly got going. The pair came together with India wobbling at 29 for 2 and made the most of Malinga's errant line. Tendulkar just needed to flick his wrists and see the ball speed away to the square-leg fence while Ganguly was quick to latch on to anything wide, freeing his arms and bisecting the off-side field. Tendulkar brought up his half-century, 76th of his career, in just 51 deliveries, cracking nine fours in the process, while Ganguly was the calmer partner, assured in his approach, yet emphatic in strokeplay.
Their dismissals, followed by a sloppy late-cut by Virender Sehwag, created a few flutters. Sri Lanka, who until then, appeared to be nowhere in the contest found an opening and exploited it smartly. Almost all their bowlers contributed. Malinga, who is right there at the top in the fast bowling stakes, possesses a lethal bouncer and yorker - Dhoni was lucky to hear a no-ball call after being bowled by a searing toe-crusher. Maharoof's two early blows showed the lift and cut he could generate from this pitch - Robin Uthappa, on the front foot, flinched at a short one while Rahul Dravid had no answer to a peach of an incutter that deflected off his inside edge. Malinga Bandara, the legspinner, produced a most effective and under-stated effort.
It's not often that legspinners succeed against Indian batsmen but his variation of pace, and sharp legbreaks, proved vital. In the course of his spell, he forced Tendulkar into a few indiscretions before earning the distinction of becoming the first legspinner to get him stumped either in Tests or ODIs. But for the matchwinning spell one can't look beyond Jayasuriya, keeping his head at the dying stages and frustrating India till the end.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo