Chronicle of a Defeat Foretold
As Tom Moody basks in the acclaim and ponders what minor tweaks are required to make Sri Lanka genuine contenders to Australia's crown at the next World Cup, Greg Chappell will return to Bangalore and wonder just what he has let himself in for. Sri Lanka's 23rd victory in their last 29 games merely confirmed that India's position in one-day cricket's basement - 7th in the ICC table - was thoroughly deserved, and Chappell now faces an arduous task to resuscitate a team that has forgotten what it's like to play even half-decent cricket, leave alone be contenders.
If today's over-by-over comparison graph - the worm to use TV parlance - was to be given a title, Chronicle of a Defeat Foretold would probably be apt. With 15 overs remaining, India were in cruise control at 186 for 2, with Rahul Dravid having grafted his way past 50, and Yuvraj Singh eschewing his usual flamboyance to thwart the undoubted threat posed by Muttiah Muralitharan. But with India being the undisputed world champions at choking - move over, South Africa, you have nothing on a side that's won only one of 15 finals in the new millennium - and the Murali-Chaminda Vaas combination pencilled in to bowl at the death, you knew the self-destruct button was never far away.
It was Yuvraj that gave it the initial push, wafting a sweep straight to the deep-square-leg fielder, and after that it was white-flag-waving time, with some comical run-outs giving a delirious crowd extra entertainment. Dravid, who had anchored the innings superbly during his 69, was prime culprit, setting off for an overly risky single against a fielding side that are light years ahead of India in the sharpness stakes.
The result was rough justice on two men who had strained every sinew to give India the initiative. Ashish Nehra bowled with the control and nous that had characterised his every appearance in this tournament - 12 wickets at 16.50 and an economy rate of 4.12 - and must have been absolutely gutted to be out in the middle at the finale, flailing away in despair at the wreckage of the run-chase.
The other individual who could feel hard done by was Virender Sehwag, who had slammed his way out of a poor run of form by eviscerating Farveez Maharoof and Dilhara Lokahettige. A day earlier, Andrew Flintoff, world cricket's flavour of the month, had told The Daily Telegraph in an interview: "I'm a positive cricketer, at times I'm not pretty or not technically perfect, but I've got a method which I've got to trust."
Under lights, Sehwag remembered the method that has made him second only to Adam Gilchrist as a consistently destructive force. He remembered that the crude slogs and swipes that marred his earlier innings in this tournament were not the foundation on which his game was built, and resorted instead to the glorious cover-drives and lofts through midwicket that have served him so well when he's in prime form. Instead of his head falling away and legs imitating those of a drunk, he was poised and resolute, pulverising anything that came within his shot-radar.
Luckily for Sri Lanka, they had a world-class new-ball bowler in Vaas, who knew just what length to bowl to induce the mistake. Vaas, on his return to the side, showed why he has been second only to the peerless Wasim Akram as a left-arm pace bowler in the modern era, but it was Muralitharan and Upul Chandana - who picked up 4 for 73 between them in 19.5 overs - that authored the decisive twist in this tale, utterly outbowling India's own spin combination of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh.
The Indian duo went wicketless in their 20 overs, conceding 104 runs in the process, and were comfortably milked by the likes of Sanath Jayasuriya, Mahela Jayawardene and Russel Arnold. Kumble strayed onto the legs too often, and was also far too short, while Harbhajan appeared to be a pale imitation of the great Muralitharan.
And the Indian cause wasn't helped by some fielding and catching that belonged on the garbage heap. Prime candidate for raps on the knuckles was Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who gave another leaden-footed and butter-fingered exhibition, reprieving both Jayasuriya (on 19) and Jayawardene. If Dhoni is to even dream of scaling Gilchrist heights, he would do well to remember that his primary task is to keep wicket securely, and not just bash the ball out of sight. As Gilchrist showed with his keeping to Shane Warne at Edgbaston, he's a class act with both pairs of gloves.
This was a result that should surprise no one, being India's 28th defeat in 55 games since the last World Cup. In the same time, Sri Lanka have won 30 of 44, and their last defeat in a home final came as far back as 1998. Since the World Cup, they have also thumped India five times out of six, with the lone defeat coming in an Asia Cup match that they didn't need to win.
The facts are in front of Chappell, and after three defeats against the main opposition in this tournament, he will have a better idea of which players have what it takes to be effective performers in the Caribbean in two years time. This evening though, he might just cast a wistful glance at the other dressing-room and wonder whether his compatriot got Asian cricket's plum job.
Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Cricinfo