Sri Lanka steady after India amass 642
Rahul Dravid laid the platform for the hosts with a serene, yet commanding 144 before Yuvraj Singh and VVS Laxman hit fluent fifties to lead India to a position of immense strength in Kanpur. India consolidated their position further by removing Tillakaratne Dilshan for a first-ball duck, and would also have been boosted by a probing spell from Harbhajan Singh and an encouraging one from Pragyan Ojha. Sri Lanka found a reason to smile due to Rangana Herath's five-for that terminated the Indian innings just after tea but it was a little too late for the visitors and the result of the game will now depend on how the pitch behaves.
Spare a thought for Dilshan, though. After toiling in the field for nearly two days, he was out first ball, getting a leading edge while attempting to flick an innocuous delivery outside leg stump from Zaheer Khan. Contrast it with the fortunes of Virender Sehwag who was dropped in the first over yesterday. It has been that kind of Test for Sri Lanka; not much has happened for them and till Herath introduced some drama into the game, nothing went right for them even today.
It was a classic grind-to-dust approach by the Indians led by Dravid, who, during the course of his 28th century went past Allan Border's run tally in Tests. The stand-out factor in Dravid's batting during this series has been his intent. He's been decisive, in defense and attack, and has been aggressively looking to score. Today he displayed the full repertoire: the charges down the track, the gorgeous inside-out cover drives on a stretched front foot, and the skillful punches off the back foot all were there but what stood out was a late cut against Mendis. The ball was skidding towards off stump, Dravid checked his forward press, waited for the ball to arrive before opening the blade and gliding it past backward point. There was no violence, just pure timing, and the stroke captured the spirit of his innings.
Dravid seemed impossible to dismiss, and when his end came, it was bizarre and perhaps, as that cricketing cliché goes, the only way he would have got out today. VVS Laxman hit one hard back at the bowler Rangana Herath, who spilled the catch, and the ball fell on the stumps with Dravid out of the crease at the non-striker's end.
Dravid left after leading India's charge and, in a reversal of their usual roles, was the dominant batsman in a 94-run partnership with Sachin Tendulkar. Tendulkar didn't hit a single boundary till his 87th delivery, when he pranced down the track to lift Mendis over long-off. A few balls later, however, he was dismissed trying to repeat the shot but couldn't clear mid-off. The credit must go to Mendis for dragging back the length this time around.
Following the two dismissals, the afternoon saw some classic yawn-inducing Test cricket: The pitch was benign, the sun was out, Sri Lanka were flattened and India were almost on auto-pilot with Laxman and Yuvraj cruising to half-centuries without breaking a sweat.
Yuvraj, who can be an iffy starter against quality spin, faced no problems as he settled in with imperious drives and a few sweep shots. His best was a late cut against Mendis: He had just lifted the previous delivery to long-on boundary and Mendis shortened the length of the next one and got it to skid away from the stumps. Yuvraj went back and played a late slice-cum-cut to the third-man boundary. It reflected his confidence against his previous nemesis and also said much about the state of the pitch and the match.
Laxman, too, looked set for a hundred until he sliced a flighted delivery from Herath straight to mid-off. Till then, he worked the angles well against the spinners, using his wrists to flick and drive the ball, and unfurled couple of caressed drives against the seamers.
Herath gave Sri Lanka some thing to cheer about by striking with his carrom balls. He removed a clueless MS Dhoni, Harbhajan Singh, and Pragyan Ojha with finger-flicked deliveries that broke back in from outside off to hit the stumps or the pad and lured Zaheer to edge to slip.
Not only Herath but Muttiah Muralitharan too turned in an improved performance today. His flight was always there but today the loop and the dip gained potency. India would have been lifted by the couple of balls from Murali that spun and bounced appreciably in the first session and the amount of spin, though slow, Herath and Harbhajan found late in the day. Perhaps the pitch was showing some signs of life. Maybe it was just an oddity. Only time will tell.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo