After Virender Sehwag had bludgeoned 44 from just 28 balls, an unhurried and unbeaten 96 from Sachin Tendulkar took India to a facile victory that gave them a 2-1 lead in this five-match series. Sri Lanka had dominated the early stages of the match, galloping to 165 for 1 from 22.2 overs but they then subsided in bizarre fashion, undone by a combination of Ravindra Jadeja's spin, poor shot selection and two wickets in two balls from Ishant Sharma, who had gone for 46 in his first three overs. They lost the remaining nine wickets for 74 runs and slumped to 239 all out, which India eased past with 44 balls to spare.
The game changed once Sehwag, captaining in placed of the banned MS Dhoni, brought the slow bowlers on, and it was he himself who dealt the vital blow, having Kumar Sangakkara stumped for 46 despite Dinesh Karthik initially fumbling the take. India built on that success soon after, with Upul Tharanga losing his off bail in Jadeja's opening over after an attractive 73. Sri Lanka never recovered from those twin strikes.
Mahela Jayawardene's poor series continued when he slugged a long hop from Harbhajan Singh to short midwicket, where Suresh Raina timed his leap perfectly to take the catch. Thilina Kandamby and Chamara Kapugedera stopped the rot for a few overs, but then Jadeja and Ishant combined to end all hopes of a large total.
First, Kapugedera played on off Jadeja, and then Kandamby too found the inner edge off Ishant. When Suraj Randiv got a thin edge to one that moved away, it was 210 for 7. Jadeja then trapped Nuwan Kulasekara plumb in front as Sri Lanka unravelled completely. When Jadeja slid one through the defence of Ajantha Mendis, he had 4 for 32 from his 10 overs.
It had been so different at the start of play, with Zaheer Khan bowling three wides in an opening over where Dilshan added two fours for good measure. Ishant, playing in place of Praveen Kumar, was greeted with a crisp shot to long-on and two meaty flails through cover. With Tharanga then whacking one down the ground for six, and Dilshan slapping another ball through cover, the 50 took just 3.4 overs, the fastest-ever against India.
Ashish Nehra came on to stem the tide, and Dilshan could have gone on 36 had Karthik not made a mess of a flick on to the stumps that would have run him out. It wasn't a costly miss, however, with a top-edged heave at Nehra ending up in Karthik's hands soon after. By then, though, the run-rate was 10 and, with Tharanga steering and cutting the ball neatly, the runs continued to mount.
Sangakkara drove Ishant straight down the ground to bring up the hundred, and when Tharanga edged Harbhajan down to third man, he had his half-century from 51 balls. Sangakkara then lofted Sehwag for a straight six, and things were looking exceedingly grim for India until the spinners and Ishant had their say.
Chanaka Welegedara started the Indian innings with a maiden, and Sehwag then watched Tendulkar clip and cover-drive Kulasekara for fours. When his turn came, he took Kulasekara for three fours in an over, a feat he repeated when Lasith Malinga came on without his radar in place. Welegadara was also then smashed for three fours before Dilshan held, at the third time of asking, an attempt to belt the ball over point.
After Sehwag's exit, the run-flow eased temporarily. Tendulkar was fortunate when an inside edge off Kulasekara missed leg stump on its way for four, but with some lovely strokes being played through the covers and midwicket, the innings was soon back on track.
Tendulkar greeted Mendis with a paddle and a cover-drive for four, and when he then upper-cut Kulasekara for four more, Sangakkara brought on Randiv in a bid to emulate what the Indian spinners had done earlier in the day. He duly got Gambhir, a return catch off the leading edge, but with Tendulkar well set and Yuvraj Singh finding his off-side rhythm, it looked likely to be no more than a blip.
It took Tendulkar 57 balls to reach yet another half-century, and when he then dabbed Mendis through vacant slip, the target was well below 100. Yuvraj went, playing a lazy drive at Welegedera, but with Karthik taking Mendis for two fours in an over and then chipping a Malinga yorker over mid-on, India hurtled towards the target.
Tendulkar carried on in unhurried fashion, with deft dabs and clips off the pads, and glances so fine they just evaded the keeper. But with Karthik clouting Randiv over long-on for a six, the century that the crowd was looking for never arrived. Not that it mattered. With Sri Lanka succumbing to the Christmas spirit of giving, what might have been a challenging chase for India became instead as pleasant as a moment under the mistletoe.