'Only one team can lose from here' - Gambhir
This was a traipse back down memory lane to the 1990s when India's batsmen would pile up huge totals before vacating the stage for their slow bowlers to systematically demolish the opposition. At least, India will be hoping the script plays out that way. The batsmen have done their part, putting 642 on the board at a cracking pace and with the pitch already showing signs of deterioration, the onus is now on Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha to make inroads into a Sri Lankan line-up that amassed 760 in the first Test.
Most of the damage at Green Park was done on the opening day, with Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag adding 233 for the first wicket. Gambhir, who has now scored hundreds in each of his last four Tests, was confident that India would be able to drive home the advantage. "If you get 650 on the board, it's always difficult for the team batting second," he said. "The way the wicket is behaving now, it's only going to get more difficult. Stroke-making isn't easy because the bounce is not that great.
"There's only one team that can lose from this situation and that's Sri Lanka. If we bowl well, we're favourites in this game. They need 450 to avoid the follow-on. As long as they're short of that, they'll be in danger. And on this pitch, 450 is a lot of runs."
Until the series in Sri Lanka last July, Gambhir wasn't even an integral part of India's line-up, but his progress since has evoked all manner of comparisons. After the first day's play, Sehwag referred to him as India's best opening batsman since Sunil Gavaskar, and while he doesn't mind the praise, it's not something that's uppermost in his mind. "In New Zealand as well, he [Sehwag] said that I'm the next Wall [Rahul Dravid]. Coming from him, it's a great feeling. If someone else had said it, I wouldn't have taken it seriously because these statements don't matter. Comparisons with other cricketers don't really make that much difference to me."
These days, Gambhir bats with the same sort of composure and steadiness that once made Dravid such an immovable object. There's something reassuring about the way he goes about the business of making runs. And while he has gone from one century to another, the original has also regained his touch, with back-to-back centuries in Ahmedabad and Kanpur. "I think he's a great player and his record speaks for him," said Gambhir when asked about the Dravid renaissance.
"As a cricketer, you go through these lean patches, and he's such a great player that it was just a matter of time before he came out of that. We've all seen that once he got a hundred in Mohali against England, he hasn't looked back. A lot of credit goes to him for the way he fought it out. The entire team is really happy because he's one of the great players of the game. Hopefully he can continue the same way for us because he's one of mainstays in our batting line-up."
Sri Lanka managed to get through to stumps with only one wicket down, but Gambhir was confident that the gremlins in the pitch would come to India's aid sooner rather than later. "If you see the last session, the ball has started turning and keeping low as well. If we can bowl well tomorrow and for the next two days, it's going to result-oriented [the pitch]. That's what we felt even when we saw it before the Test started. We thought something would happen on this wicket. It's only going to deteriorate from here on and if we can bowl the areas we want to bowl, there's definitely going to be a result."
At one stage, with the scoreboard showing 613 for 4, a total in excess of 700 appeared likely. But Rangana Herath triggered a lower-order collapse in which six wickets fell for 29, and Gambhir was generous in his praise of the least celebrated member of Sri Lanka's spin troika. "A five-wicket haul is a five-wicket haul. No one gives easy wickets in Test cricket. A lot of credit goes to him. On the first day, nothing was happening and he still stuck to his line and length and he got all the rewards for the way he bowled. Most of the wickets he got were off good balls. Except for Zaheer [Khan], all the other dismissals were off good balls."
More than 50,000 have cheered themselves hoarse in the stands over the first two days, making a mockery of recent suggestions that Indians no longer love their Test cricket. According to Gambhir, it was only ever thus. "Test cricket can never die in India because of the amount of passion people have," he said. "It's the ultimate cricket, if you ask any of the cricketers. It's what I've always said in the past as well. Those who've become legends of the game have fantastic Test records. You don't practise to play four overs in Twenty20, you practise to get 200s and 300s. That's where your skill and temperament and patience are tested. We've got a great crowd here, and even in Ahmedabad we had decent crowds. That's really satisfying."
With 10 centuries scored in the first seven days of the series, there was some sympathy too for those toiling with ball in hand. "Especially in Ahmedabad, it was a very tough job for the spinners, and for fast bowlers," he said. "The way both Harbhajan and Amit [Mishra] bowled, my heart went out to them because there was nothing from the track. If you see, even Muralitharan, who's the best spinner in the world, didn't have a wicket on the fifth day, only the third time that's happened. In future, I hope we can have wickets which suit both batsmen and bowlers so that it's an even contest."
You sense though that he and team-mates, not to mention the thousands in the stands, will be perfectly happy to see an uneven contest over the next day or two. India have Sri Lanka staggering, and at a venue where spinners have always held sway, they'll relish the opportunity to deliver the knockout punch.