Little time but lots of action
How often does such a short day produce so much thrilling cricket? Less than a half a day's play was possible today but a lover of Test cricket could have hardly asked for more. There was a gleaming, utterly insouciant hundred and plenty of skilful strokeplay that brought a torrent of boundaries, yet the bowlers were never out of the game. And when they eventually found an opening, they went about cutting down a mighty batting order in a manner that can be described as surgical. One way of looking at it would be to lament how rain ruined half of the day; the other would be to reflect on how the elements intervened to create a dramatic twist. Days such as this make watching Test cricket such a rewarding and fulfilling experience.
Merely looking at the scorecard is likely to produce some bafflement. India scored at nearly five an over and didn't lose a wicket till they had 167 on the board, which will point to a featherbed. Sri Lanka grabbed four wickets in four overs, which might point to some trickery from the surface. The truth is that neither was the pitch a batting paradise before lunch, nor was it a minefield after the rain break when India collapsed: it is merely that Virender Sehwag was exceptional all day, while Ajantha Mendis and Chaminda Vaas preyed on the nerves of a tentative middle-order after the breach was made.
There is a thin line between audacity and bravado, and Sehwag blurs it with relish. His last three dismissals against these opponents bordered on foolishness. In the Asia Cup final, he survived a first-ball charge against Mendis only to get stumped off the next; in the first innings of the first Test, he ballooned a head-high bouncer from well outside the off stump and in the second, he fell in a most un-Sehwag- like way, padding up to Muttiah Muralitharan on the stroke of lunch. By his own standards, he was an object of moderation against Mendis today, not leaving his crease till the sixth ball though he did try to sweep him out of the ground off the second ball. By the sixth ball he had apparently seen enough to jump down the pitch and hoist Mendis over midwicket. And, as if to demonstrate he was reading the variations, two balls later he arched back to cut a googly past point.
But Sehwag makes strokeplay so ridiculously easy that he perhaps fools others into a false sense of security, or plain intimidates them. Despite the economy of foot movement, his shots are mostly conventional. His adventurism often lies in the conception and he can keep belting boundaries without appearing rash. Today, he had a partner who was not willing to merely hustle singles with him but also to play a few bold shots of his own.
For someone who has always been an opener - Sehwag, in contrast, became one in international cricket - Gautam Gambhir is exceptionally quick on his feet against the spinners, and his inopportune dismissals in the first Test, suckered twice by Murali, didn't dampen his enthusiasm. Till he misread Mendis after the break, he was assured and positive against the spinners.
Not for the first time at this ground, though, the Indian middle order wasted the opening effort: in 2001, Sadagoppan Ramesh and SS Das had got India to 79 before Dilhara Fernando and Muralitharan bundled them out for 187. It's a spinner-opening bowler combination that triggered a dramatic slide today.
At the lunch break, Vaas's future was a matter of animated speculation. He had gone wicketless at the SSC and Sehwag and Gambhir had treated him shabbily in the first session here, with Gambhir repeatedly walking down the pitch to him; that prompted Vaas to call the wicketkeeper up to the stumps, upon which Gambhir cut him for four. Had Lasith Malinga and Fernando been fit, it was unlikely that Vaas would have played this Test. But in damp conditions on a sweating pitch, it was Vaas who was most likely to produce a wicket. And he produced two in an over, both with his trademark ball, the one that straightens after pitching. After Sehwag carted a six and drilled a four off his first over, Mahela Jayawardene might have been persuaded to bring on Murali but he was rewarded for respecting Vaas's ability to exploit the conditions. Sri Lanka are now within touching distance of bowling India out cheaply - a score of 500 had seemed possible when Sehwag and Gambhir were batting merrily - and India have a problem with their middle order.
Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly have looked out of sorts on the tour so far, and Dravid's career seems to have reached its lowest ebb. He has been dismissed by Mendis all three times in the series and there is no evidence yet that he is anywhere near reading him. A tame prod brought about his dismissal today and he didn't bother waiting for the umpire's decision, unlike in the previous innings when he had waited for a referral after an inside edge. He might have had a case today with the replay showing that the ball had bounced off the catcher's helmet, but no one would grudge Mendis the wicket. He has now implanted a thousand ghosts in the mind of one of the most unflappable batsmen in contemporary cricket.
These 45 overs have already produced enough for this Test to be on the edge. Two hours of Sehwag could yet tilt it India's way, Sri Lanka are only a couple of magic balls away from nullifying India's toss advantage. It was the sort of day that leaves you in anticipation for the next one. Tomorrow can't come sooner.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo