Mendis factor works in Murali's favour
How India's 'Fab Four' handled spin was always going to be a central focus of this match, and of the series. The assumption was that Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman would prove a sterner test for Ajantha Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan than the likes of Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh and Robin Uthappa, whom Mendis outsmarted in the Asia Cup. What unfolded at the SSC was a poor batting display, put into motion by Virender Sehwag's ungainly dismissal and culminating in Dinesh Karthik's ill-advised slog-sweep back into Muralitharan's hands.
While he got only one wicket, Mendis, on debut, provided plenty of worries to the Fab Four. He took away the batsmen's focus from Muralitharan, who then laughed all the way home. Mendis was entrusted with the ball after ten overs and a few full tosses were duly put away by Gautam Gambhir. With the last ball before tea, he beat Dravid with a legbreak, but it wasn't enough for his first Test wicket. After the break, Mendis, like Monty Panesar before him, had an Indian legend as his first Test victim. It came with the flick of the finger, the carrom ball. Dravid was beaten clean and square by a ball which landed on middle stump and hurried past an uncertain back-foot prod, disturbing the off stump. Mahela Jayawardene was the first to run to Mendis, embracing him in a bear hug and beaming ever so proudly. The look on Dravid's face said it all.
When asked if the hype surrounding Mendis going into the Test was justified, Jayawardene had put it back to the media, saying it came from them. Is it too early to usher him into Test cricket, was the question on the eve of this Test. On the evidence of his performance today, and more so the way he withdrew the focus from Murali, the answer is a firm no. Today provided a mere glimpse of where Sri Lankan spin is heading.
India's capitulation to 159 for 6 continued the larger theme of their best displays being outside the subcontinent. Batting could never have been easier than on this dodo-eyed track but the introduction of two unconventional spinners - one the highest Test wicket-taker and the other on debut - changed the equation.
Murali's first strike was classical sucker-punch stuff, Gambhir forced into chipping a leading edge to short cover. Murali burst to life to celebrate his 150th wicket at the SSC and soon trained his attention towards the new batsman. Tendulkar was 172 short of Brian Lara's record 11,953 runs in Tests, but that was immaterial.
A riveting battle began between the two spinners and Tendulkar, offering fans a treat. It was a battle of wits mostly between Murali and Tendulkar. Concentration writ across his brow, his feet moving back to Murali, and forward to Mendis' wrist-spin from around the stumps, Tendulkar's device was attack.
He was beaten on the seventh delivery he faced from Mendis, attempting to flick the ball across the line but only getting a leading edge to the off side. He was firm on attacking, using his feet to caress Murali through mid-on and slog-sweeping Mendis from off stump to deep midwicket. From then on Tendulkar mostly opted to play Murali by going back. So far back, in fact, that he was almost onto his stumps. Alas, the contest was over before it could truly blossom. Murali slipped in a doosra from around the stumps, it turned across from middle and leg, and Tendulkar's uncertainty resulted in an inside edge onto the stumps. A contest that had promised a lot more ended abrubtly.
Blood scented, Murali bustled in, round-arm, wide-eyed, and bowled delivery after delivery of testing spin. Wilting under the pressure, Ganguly and Karthik played panic shots. Ironic, for perhaps they were so puzzled by Mendis that they took chances against Murali. Ganguly puttered along to 23 before a needless attempt at a sweep was gobbled up. With VVS Laxman showing laudable application, all Karthik had to do was see out the ten-odd overs till stumps. Instead his comeback innings was over before it began, a silly swipe going nowhere but into Murali's hands.
Sri Lanka's spinners were far more successful than India's on a track that allowed Sri Lanka to post 600. And the pressure told. To look back at the last time India were under immense pressure from spin, you would have to pick out Murali's one-man show in Delhi or in Bangalore a few months before that when the unlikely duo of Arshad Khan and Shahid Afridi spun Pakistan to a famous win.
Gary Kirsten, India's coach, blamed India's predicament on poor batting, and three of India's shots were indeed damning. The first-day rain, the four Sri Lankan hundreds, the umpiring review, all faded into the background as Murali and Mendis spun a web around India. The series has sparked into life.
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo