Cricket in thrall as big guns slug it out
In the end it was the battle of the sluggers: Virender Sehwag and Tillakaratne Dilshan. Two openers who have always managed to play cricket that is exciting and daring. And if they are able to sustain their aggression for long periods, as they did today, no summit is really beyond them.
Sehwag had set the pulses racing in the morning with a blistering century that formed the springboard for India vaulting past 400. He was his usual spontaneous self, assaulting all bowlers with equal disdain. With a full house roaring behind him, Sehwag wasn't short on motivation as he ran roughshod over the hapless Sri Lankan bowling, weakened by the absence of the unfit Lasith Malinga and Muttiah Muralitharan. Nuwan Kulasekara had tested Sehwag's patience by getting a hint of swing early in the morning, getting him to play and miss three times in the opening over. In the second he was unfortunate because Sehwag got away with an inside edge that dropped dead at the base of the stumps.
But just like he had done in the Test series, Sehwag played for time in the initial overs. He had admitted that staying calm helped him score big hundreds, including the rare feat of cracking a double-century in a day in Mumbai recently. But in the ODIs, after promising 30s and 40s, his impatience had often shortened his stay at the wicket. Today he diligently avoided committing that mistake.
Yet his batting remained a joyous affair. He punished the bad balls, made the good balls look bad, crafted those exquisite off-the-hips clips towards the leg side having picked the ball outside off and, when Kumar Sangakkara placed an extra fielder to arrest the run-flow, Sehwag hit the next shot exactly in the same area to prove his supremacy.
It would be a mistake to read his actions as audacious, because Sehwag is an intelligent batsmen who likes to play with the opponent's mind. In the ninth over, bowled by Kulasekara, Mahela Jayawardene was moved to short point from the slips to strengthen the off-side field in front of square. The idea was to stop those hard cuts that Sehwag was hitting with regularity. In response, Sehwag moved a yard forward before slashing hard over the two point fielders for another four.
Just as Sehwag can make bowlers and their captains pull out their hair in frustration with that ridiculous ability to pick the ball early and hit it with a still head, Dilshan's strength lies in taking the issue to the bowler confidently. In 2009 Dilshan, a converted opener, has managed to successfully make that role, carried out by Sanath Jayasuriya for 15 years with great success, his own. In his prime Jayasuriya dropped the bowler to his knees with rasping cuts and sharp, short-arm jabs. He is less refined but even if his shots aren't as memorable he has that uncanny ability to unsettle his opponent's mind.
Zaheer Khan came around the stumps in his first over against Dilshan for two reasons: to create doubt in the batsman's mind and to make an angle that could clip Dilshan's wings by bowling into his body. Dilshan simply took a step back and sent a crashing drive over the extra-cover fielder, forcing Zaheer to revert to a customary over-the-stumps line.
Dilshan spared no bowler through his knock, which came at almost as good a pace as Sehwag's. In a way the conditions were more challenging for Dilshan than for Sehwag because he needed to provide a powerful launch to the innings in order for Sri Lanka to keep their hopes alive of overhauling a mammoth target.
Another constant challenge was the absence of any crowd support - the locals had gone silent with Dilshan, Upul Tharanga and Kumar Sangakkara gaining the upper hand. Still Dilshan maintained his inner calm. He realised he had to switch between the roles of anchor and aggressor to keep the momentum in Sri Lanka's favour. While he was around India could not breathe easy.
"Dilshan's and Sangakkara's wickets were the turning point," Sehwag said later. On Dilshan, his Delhi Daredevils team-mate, Sehwag said he had batted superbly. "He realised I had scored 140 in 34 overs so if he batted 40-45 overs he could even score a double hundred. He played some amazing shots."
That was as good a tribute as any Dilshan could expect on a day he outgunned India's top shot but still fell short.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo