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Three fine innings, two fast bowlers on the comeback trail, one marauder par excellence, and more
September 1, 2008
Like Robin Hood, Virender Sehwag looted the rich, the Sri Lankan bowlers, for the good of those rendered uncharacteristically poor, the Indian batsmen. Sehwag played the Test series in a different universe, and Sri Lanka's proximity to a win was always inversely proportional to the time he spent at the crease. In Galle he batted for 348 minutes before running out of partners. Another batsman might have scored a boy-on-the-burning-deck century in such circumstances, but Sehwag dealt out some fire of his own. Off 231 balls he scored 201; the rest - extras included - added 128 in 261 legal deliveries. Sehwag made it look so simple it was breathtaking, finding gaps in the field that other batsmen don't know of. The statistic of the innings: he took 70 runs off 77 balls he faced from Ajantha Mendis. At 199, he refused singles twice, shielding the No. 11, as opposed to rushing manically towards the double-century, his fifth. In the end, the Sri Lankans couldn't out Sehwag at all, and had to dislodge Ishant Sharma to afford themselves a sigh of relief.
On his return, at The Oval, he almost took a wicket with the first ball, split his keeper's lip open with a sharp bouncer in the same over, and then took two wickets in two balls to drive the point home: Steve Harmison was well and truly back. He may have taken only two wickets in his first bowling innings in the Test, but during his glory days in 2004 and 2005 he could have bowled worse and walked away with a five-for. His second wicket was pure pace bowling at its best: no deceptive movement, no late swing, just a fast, straight, accurate yorker to bowl Hashim Amla. Harmison could feel it, he enjoyed it. Eventually he ended his self-imposed exile from ODI cricket, too. Pace and bounce are back, and the lame display in Hamilton that led to his dropping is a distant memory.
The Iron Man
The setting was hauntingly familiar. South Africa had done well in England once again, but England had made a comeback via a mercurial Andrew Flintoff, at Edgbaston, the venue that witnessed the mother of all South African chokes, during the 1999 World Cup. Chasing 282 for their first series win in England, South Africa went from 65 for 0 to 93 for 4, and presently that cloggy feeling started coming back to throats. Graeme Smith, though, mixed some adrenalin with the painkillers he had needed to play the match, and made sure South Africa would reach the promised land this time. On a wearing fourth-day pitch, Smith was in the zone: he had moments of fortune but he didn't let the shooters and the lifters affect his concentration. The previous highest successful chase at Edgbaston had been 208; Smith alone scored 154. He wanted the win badly, he wanted it then, not in the final Test, not on the final day. In fading light, he opted for the extra half hour; history couldn't wait.
When Michael Vaughan and Paul Collingwood quit within hours of each other, one man was not crying. Stating that Kevin Pietersen is quick to spot an opportunity might sound harsh to some, but it is a selfishness of the sort England need badly. With Pietersen came opportunism, flamboyance, instinctive leadership, and also leadership by example. He picked Harmison, became the fourth Englishman to start his captaincy stint with a Test century, convinced Harmison to end his ODI retirement, and also scored 90 and took two wickets at Headingley. With a 4-0 lead in the ODIs, he is making it look an easy job. Shoot the one who says a captain is only as good as his team.
Kumar Sangakkara is usually too free-flowing a batsman to have to summon up the kind of fierce determination he used in the third Test. He couldn't have picked a better time to shrug off his bad patch, with Sri Lanka running the risk of wasting the good work of two of world's best spinners. Sangakkara played an innings totally out of character. Every one of the 288 balls he faced was a new story, a new chapter in concentration, as he curbed his natural strokeplay, cut out all risk, and scored a stubborn 144 to decide the series Sri Lanka's way. Amid the maddening pace of the rest of series, this innings was an oasis of calm, featuring only 14 boundaries and taking more than seven hours to compile. For those seven hours, India kept running into a barn door.
Everything Sri Lanka did in the Test series frustrated India. One such unexpected irritant was the review system. The contrast was clear: Mahela Jayawardene seemed to enjoy the little game, mischief and confidence conspicuous every time he went to challenge the umpire. Anil Kumble, on the other hand, never looked certain, relying on, among others, Harbhajan Singh, Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel, before he went upstairs. The killer blows came when Jayawardene got crucial wickets through reviews, after the batsmen had looked not-out in live time. India, like their batsmen, groped in the dark when it came to reviews. Sri Lanka got 12 of their challenge calls right, India one.
There are few sights as primally captivating as that of Andrew Flintoff running in hard, bowling fast, and then celebrating the wickets that inevitably ensue. In the Edgbaston Test, South Africa had just about equalled England's 231, and had six wickets in hand when Flintoff produced a spell that kept England in the match. In one over he gave Jacques Kallis a yorker, a nasty bouncer, a not-so-nasty bouncer, a quick length delivery, and another yorker, which looked plumb but was not given. With the shadows falling, Flintoff then came back in his next over to clean Kallis up with another yorker that the batsman didn't see, and let out a roar that the whole of England responded to. For good measure, he soon got AB de Villiers with a bouncer, and England started to think the contest was still alive.
Xavier Marshall is a royal waste of talent. Against Australia earlier this year he played some breathtaking shots, but also went on to prove why he had zero centuries in first-class cricket and only one in List A matches to his name. Against Canada in King City last month, he was the minnow-basher who wouldn't give up. West Indies were 50 for 2 in 13.4 overs when he walked in, but he scored 157 off 131 balls to take them past 300. He hit 12 sixes, breaking the record of 11 sixes, set by Sanath Jayasuriya (in Singapore) 12 years ago and equalled by Shahid Afridi in Nairobi months later. Funny that this particular record always seems to be broken at venues off the beaten track.
India finally found a way past Sri Lanka, in the one-day series. Much of the success, though, was down to one man who took in all the pressure that came his way. When India were bowled out for 146 in Dambulla, they looked ripe for the taking by Sri Lanka for the third time in recent months - after the Asia Cup and the Tests. But Mahendra Singh Dhoni had other ideas; he promoted himself ahead of two specialist batsmen, and scored crucial runs in three consecutive matches, all of which India won. In the second game, he wore Murali and Mendis down to take India from 75 for 5 to victory. In the third and the fourth, he controlled the pace of the play beautifully to give India totals they could easily defend. His ascent to No. 1 in the ICC's one-day ratings was hardly unexpected.
It is quite possible that Ajantha Mendis will keep making this space every month. Tests Nos. 2 and 3 against India brought him ten and eight wickets respectively. His sixth Test bowling innings was the first in which he took fewer than four wickets. And although Sri Lanka lost the ODI series, Mendis got wickets regularly there too, leading the tally with 13 of them at 11.69 apiece. After three Tests he has 26 wickets, and 33 after 13 ODIs. Over the next few months, the record books could take a battering as Mendis could be the quickest to every milestone. Provided his form stays, and Sri Lanka have enough cricket to play.
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