Dilshan, Mathews help Sri Lanka draw level
The second humdinger between these two teams this week ran the gamut from wonderful to what-the-heck as runs and wickets flowed in equal measure in good batting conditions. Sri Lanka leveled the series with a three-wicket win in a match defined by two individual innings, contrasting in style and strength, at either end of a collapse that threatened to give India the advantage and a 2-0 lead.
With another evening of thrilling batting, Tillakaratne Dilshan proved right every single reason behind Sri Lanka's decision in January to open the innings with him permanently. Dilshan's fifth one-day century, and second in a row, was the dominant force in Sri Lanka clinching this win but it so nearly ended up in another lost cause, if not for Angelo Mathews.
Dilshan contributed 63 to a 102-run opening stand, playing with the freedom and control fans have grown accustomed to; then, in the period where India followed up a double-strike with 12 boundary-less overs, he collected his century while ensuring the asking rate stayed in control. There was a massive scare as Sri Lanka lost three wickets, and a limping Mathews was called on to douse the flames. That he did, standing one on leg and coolly striking out the threat of a revved-up India. With eight needed from nine balls the match was on a knife's edge, but Nehra bowled a full toss, Mathews bunted it to mid-on, and Zaheer let it right through his legs for four.
While India's attack had been spread through the line-up, with Virat Kohli, centurion MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina playing dominant roles, Sri Lanka rode on Dilshan's shoulders. Needing to score at over a run a ball, he got the chase off to a brisk start. And as often happens, India failed to apply pressure from both ends. If Zaheer allowed just a run off his second over, Praveen Kumar leaked three consecutive fours in his, veering between too wide and too full. Ashish Nehra wasn't allowed to settle, with both openers punching aerial down the ground, and Zaheer's length was offset by a manipulative Dilshan. Sri Lanka's fifty came up in 6.3 overs, most of the runs coming down the ground.
It was enthralling batting from Dilshan. Zaheer and Nehra tried to push him back but he rode the bounce, and at times his luck - such as when he danced out to Nehra and edged for four. Whenever the ball was pitched up, Dilshan, at times batting out of his crease, plonked his front foot further forward and clunked powerful drives over mid-off and mid-on.
After Virender Sehwag Dilshan comes closest in today's era to being able to make the bowler bowl where he wants them to. Dhoni turned to Harbhajan Singh for the eighth over, slip and leg gully in place. Having come out and gone back to pick the gaps in Harbhajan's first over, Dilshan had the bowler in two minds. At one point, he twice hurried out to thump the ball down the ground, as he'd spotted the extra flight. Then Harbhajan bowled it quicker and wider, hoping Dilshan would come out to that one as well. Instead Dilshan read it perfectly, stayed in position, and cut it past point for four. The batsman had set the bowler up.
When Harbhajan purchased some turn, Dilshan used his crease to get over the ball, nudging it off his pads. A streaky but deliberate edge off Harbhajan for four raised a 31-ball fifty. Harbhajan had some success against Upul Tharanga, who was lured out and then edged a breaking ball to slip where Sehwag snapped a good catch to his left (102 for 1). Dilshan was then responsible for running his captain out, and for the next 55 deliveries India, through Nehra, Praveen and Ravindra Jadeja, pulled Sri Lanka back.
Dilshan spent 16 deliveries in the nineties, reached his century, raised his arms, and promptly clubbed Nehra for two dingers that snapped a 12-over barren run of no boundaries. He featured in a 66-run third-wicket stand with Mahela Jayawardene, which ended when Nehra bowled Dilshan with a fine yorker.
Zaheer delivered a further twist in the tale when, with 70 needed from 66, he got Jayawardene to nick for 39. With the rate within grasp thanks to Dilshan, Thilina Kandamby cut out the risks until his first aerial shot, in the first over of the batting Powerplay, was excellently held by a leaping Kohli at mid-on. Two legal deliveries later, a perfect yorker cleaned up Chamara Kapudegera, and the game was India's to win. But Mathews controlled his eagerness to flat-bat marvelously, nudging and pushing the ball around with the occasional aggressive drive to remain unbeaten on 37. He was outstanding under pressure, and aided by a runner (Kapugedera) picked out the deliveries to put away. Zaheer's gross error sealed Sri Lanka's fate.
At the halfway mark, the visitors would have considered the target within their reach as the wicket was still good for batting. After deciding to make first use of a pitch virtually devoid of grass, a century stand between Dhoni and Raina, after a shaky start, picked up the tempo for India. Coming together at the fall of Kohli (54), Dhoni and Raina gave India their best phase.
Dhoni ensured that the momentum didn't fall away, working the ball around superbly from the outset, and immediately showing the rich vein of form he is in this year. It wasn't a pure innings though. Dhoni had edged his first ball for four, was nearly taken at third man when on 11, edged wide of Kumar Sangakkara on 24, and got two more lives in three balls from his counterpart off Ajantha Mendis. Dhoni raised his half-century off 70 balls and thumped a six to celebrate.
Dhoni picked the batting Powerplay after 40 overs, just after Raina dumped Chanaka Welegedara for six over long-on. Two more sixes, again hit down the ground with power, pushed Sri Lanka onto the back foot as the pair took on Mendis and Suraj Randiv on in a three-over burst that bled 35 runs. Raina's fifty came up off 44 balls and that five-over block yielded 50. Looking for his fourth six, Raina picked out deep midwicket, and soon after, Mendis dropped a clanger at cover when Dhoni was on 94. In the same over, Dhoni raised his century, his second in consecutive innings in Nagpur, to a rousing reception.
Those cheers were nowhere near as boisterous when Dilshan raised his, but the resonance of the game's second century was definitely louder.
Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo