Sehwag and Gambhir wrest initiative
The Galle Test continued to amaze. The third day featured periods of heavy attrition, heavy artillery, then some attrition and some more artillery, and two wickets in two overs to cap it off. India managed to walk away with the honours, thanks to a special two-wicket over from Anil Kumble and fifties by Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. Despite Mahela Jayawardene's calm innings and two late strikes by Sri Lanka, India moved towards a comfortable lead on a pitch that could be at its worst in the fourth innings.
After India had secured a 37-run lead in the first innings, it was Sehwag who drove home the advantage, continuing in familiar vein: he hit the first ball he faced for a boundary. Nuwan Kulasekara got a repeat dose four times in his four overs. Muttiah Muralitharan, introduced in the sixth over, was swept for a four in his first over and a six in his second. Ajantha Mendis, brought on in the 17th over, was cut for a four in his second over.
Only Chaminda Vaas, who was faced mostly by Gambhir, escaped the treatment. Finally it took a special catch - fast and high, taken at short cover - by Tillakaratne Dilshan to dismiss Sehwag.
Gambhir, who had made a slow start, then quietly took the front seat. He had scored two runs off 20 when Sehwag had 22 off 15, but when Sehwag got out for 50, Gambhir had 39 off 65. His handling of Murali was exceptional: no more getting suckered out of the crease, he was almost always right to the pitch of the ball. He slog-swept Murali, cover-drove him, and then charged him straight down to reach his second fifty of the match - a first for him, as with Sehwag, who for the first time scored a half-century in a match where he had scored a hundred already.
Post-tea, Sri Lanka came back, like India in the first session, and tightened the screws. Twenty-three runs came off the next 11 overs - the last ball of which was a special one. Mendis' offbreak started outside leg stump in the air, drifted further away, and broke big to beat Gambhir's pad and take the off stump. Sachin Tendulkar and Dravid attacked in response. Tendulkar, especially, stepped out and also employed the vertical sweep to the spinners.
It would not be an overstatement to say that Dravid was helped out of his bad patch by the batsmen around him. At one point, 2.3 overs after Gambhir's dismissal, he had faced just 15 balls in the ten preceding overs, and 48 out of the 22.3 overs he had been out in the middle for. When Gambhir got out, he had faced Mendis' three previous overs. But that Dravid was much more comfortable was evident from two cuts for four through extra cover in one over, and a lofted shot he struck stepping out to Murali.
However, just when India came close to seeming clear favourites, Vaas struck with an offcutter, drawing Tendulkar out and getting an edge. In the next over, Murali got a decision, via review, against Dravid that left the batsman irate. It was not, perhaps, the actual final decision that was objectionable - the offbreak pitched outside off and would have taken middle - but the inordinate amount of time taken by Jayawardene to go for the review. Two wickets had fallen in two overs, the Galle Test had turned once more, and India were not the dominant side anymore.
The first session, too, saw its fair share of twists and turns. It was slow, but just as intense and gripping as the others, and perhaps more crucial. Almost every over - before Mahela started farming strike following a double-strike - featured a loud shout, or an edge that fell short, or a sharp spinning delivery that missed everything. Kumble and Harbhajan bowled 24 successive overs in tandem, and but for a three-over spell by Ishant Sharma in the final session yesterday, they bowled 68 overs at a stretch. Harbhajan took his unbroken spell to 37 overs, and then started bowling immediately from the other end.
Jayawardene, despite back-to-back wickets for Kumble and Harbhajan, kept Sri Lanka in the game. He was not affected by the spinning ball, the variations in the bowling, and all that happened around him. There were no free runs on offer; but he was cool enough to not try to hit himself out of the situation. He managed a total of five boundaries in the session - Malinda Warnapura had hit four in one over yesterday. And once Prasanna and Vaas fell in consecutive overs, he farmed the strike, getting good support from Kulasekara as he did.
In keeping with the narrative of the match, just when Sri Lanka seemed to have got the upper hand, another turnaround followed, with Kumble making his first impact of the series. Jayawardene, 14 short of a deserved century, edged Kumble to Dinesh Karthik, and the game was back in the balance. Although Jayawardene and Kulasekara frustrated India for 17.1 overs, India had managed to keep the partnership down to 36 runs. Kumble and Harbhajan then proceeded to remove the next two - taking the last three wickets in seven balls - to get the lead, the importance of which, on this pitch, will surely be disproportionately higher than the actual number it consists of.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo