India delight in Delhi double-act
It was just a brief chat but its importance increased as the day went on. Midway through the 21st over Virender Sehwag walked up to Gautam Gambhir and said a few words. Gambhir listened patiently and nodded in response.
The previous ball, Muttiah Muralitharan had drawn Gambhir out with a well-flighted off break. Gambhir, a few runs short of his half-century, stepped out and tried unsuccessfully to hit him over mid-on. The next delivery, after the chat, the sequence of events was the same but with one difference: Murali flighted the ball, Gambhir jumped out of his crease but this time he connected well and hit over mid-off for a four.
Sehwag's gesture was, in fact, complementary. Earlier in the morning, when he was struggling, his junior team-mate walked up to him frequently to help him relax. More importantly, Gambhir made sure that while Sehwag was still finding his feet the scoring tempo never slowed down. It was probably the most important act in the Indian innings - had Gambhir not kept the scoring rate at a healthy four-plus, Sri Lanka would have had a foot inside the Indian door.
It was yet another sign of how the two Delhi openers have forged a bond of complete trust and respect, how they feed off each other and how, in the process, they have moved to within 507 runs of becoming India's best opening pair, and have already featured in the most number of opening stands leading to Indian victories.
Within a couple of hours of that chat, Sehwag and Gambhir had posted their highest-ever partnership, the 233-run stand beating their previous best - recorded at Kanpur, against South Africa five years ago in their second Test together.
"I was not hitting the ball well to begin with and Gautam was in good form. He was getting boundaries and we were maintaining three runs an over and hence there was not much pressure on me," Sehwag said.
There's no better testament to Gambhir's growth than his ability to assess situations and then adapt to them almost instantly. Today, no length unsettled him, no bowler could lure him into a false shot; repeatedly, Chanaka Welegedara attacked his off stump with a fuller line, repeatedly Gambhir stood his ground to open the face of the bat at the last minute and glide it towards third man. Not only did he rotate the strike but he assumed the mantle when the Sri Lankans kept Sehwag in the check in the first hour.
It was a double-act reminiscent of the best of this generation, Justin Langer and Mathew Hayden: neither Australian relented under pressure. If one partner was under the cosh, the other would assume the aggressor's role even if it meant taking some risks. The only thing that mattered was to construct a good, solid platform in the first session. So often was Australia's fate scripted in those first two hours of the morning. And more often than not, they ended up on the winning side.
Partnerships of any kind require understanding. And you can understand the other only when you communicate clearly. Having shared a dressing room - first with Delhi and now for India - for nearly a decade, each knows the other's pulse.
And so, like a pair of screen cops, they cover for each other, they pick separate targets and double the mayhem. Last year in Galle, India were in a desperate situation after being dumbfounded by Ajantha Mendis in the first Test in Colombo. Sehwag and Gambhir read him best and they capitalised on that in Galle with the game's most vital partnership; their 167-run stand put India on top and the openers returned for the second dig with a 90-run partnership to keep India in the clear. In both innings Sehwag neutered the menace of Mendis by attacking him while Gambhir took charge of Murali.
The Indian pair applied the same strategy even today as Sehwag assaulted Mendis straightaway while Gambhir made Murali change his lines frequently by stepping out and placing the ball into the gaps. The Lankans were under the pump from both ends and could do little. "I was telling myself just play first 8-10 overs so I was concentrating hard and trying to leave the ball outside off. I worked hard in the first hour and after that I played my shots" Sehwag said.
He then revealed what he said to Gambhir in the 21st over: "I was just telling him to think big because this wicket is very good … and if he stayed there for three hours he would get his hundred."