Sri Lanka v India, 1st Test, SSC, Colombo, 4th day July 26, 2008

Underdone India humiliated

Dileep Premachandran on the contributions of Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis to Sri Lanka's innings and 239-run mauling of India in the first Test


The deadly duo: Ajantha Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan shared 19 wickets between them © AFP
 
When England were eviscerated in the Ashes series of 1974-75, it gave rise to the following refrain: "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, if Lillee doesn't get you, Thommo must". After the events of the past two days at the Sinhalese Sports Club Ground, Sri Lanka's cricket followers could be forgiven for adapting that chant, with the names Murali and Mendis replacing those of the Australian pace legends.

This wasn't a defeat, it was annihilation, the utter humiliation of a batting side that came into this match boasting of 106 Test hundreds. It's not as though India haven't lost heavily in recent times, but seldom have they been so embarrassed by slow bowlers. Whether it was Nagpur in 2004, where Jason Gillespie took 9 for 80, or Karachi in 2006, when the now-disgraced Mohammad Asif seamed his way through the line-up, India's biggest reverses have tended to be against pace.

Here, Sri Lanka played with perhaps the slowest new-ball combination of the modern era. Both Chaminda Vaas and Nuwan Kulasekara usually clock between 120 and 125 kph, and it was no surprise that they bowled only 30 overs between them. They did little more than take the shine off the ball, the task entrusted to Abid Ali and Eknath Solkar back in the days when India used to boast of the finest spinners in the game.

Those days are long gone. Anil Kumble bowled himself into the ground against Pakistan and Australia, and the law of diminishing returns appears to have caught up with him. Since Perth, he has just five wickets in four Tests. As for Harbhajan Singh, he was the worst bowler on view in Australia, and apart from a seven-wicket haul on a grossly under-prepared pitch in Kanpur, he has done next to nothing in recent times to influence the result of a match. "We just weren't good enough," said Kumble at the end of it all, though he also pointed out the poor catching that allowed Sri Lanka to post such a formidable total.

In comparison, backed up by attacking fields from Mahela Jayawardene and superb catching, Murali and Mendis sowed seeds of doubt with every ball they bowled. They varied flight and pace beautifully, and attacked even when coming round the wicket. Apart from Sachin Tendulkar, who played Mendis with a degree of conviction, and VVS Laxman to a lesser extent, most of the batsmen were clueless against the so-called carrom ball. One version zips away from the batsman like a leg-cutter, while the slower, loopier one is the legspinner's googly.

 
 
Often in the past, teams have managed to survive in Sri Lanka by playing out Murali and scoring freely at the other end. That get-out-of-jail card is now gone, with Mendis such an impressive foil for the master
 
Just as crucial as the variations was the impressive control he showed on debut. Mystery spinners of the past like John Gleeson weren't known for their accuracy, but Mendis's ability to make the batsman play every ball makes him a vastly different proposition. No batsman managed to come close to hitting him out of the attack, and with so much energy concentrated on how to demystify him, Murali had a field day at the other end. Often in the past, teams have managed to survive in Sri Lanka by playing out Murali and scoring freely at the other end. That get-out-of-jail card is now gone, with Mendis such an impressive foil for the master.

It's easy to be critical of the Indian batsmen but the reality is that any line-up would have been under intolerable pressure chasing 600. Murali said as much at the post-match press conference, and it also didn't help that India's frontline batsmen hadn't played any serious cricket since South Africa left the country three months ago. With India fielding a new-look one-day side and the IPL being nothing more than hit-and-giggle cricket, the likes of Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly just didn't appear to be Test-match ready. In the first innings, there were a rash of impetuous strokes, and the diffident footwork and heaves across the line were frankly embarrassing coming from those with such distinguished records.

It had been nearly five years since India had to follow on in a Test match. On that occasion, when Mohali hosted one of the most boring games in history, two splendid innings from Laxman gave India an escape route against New Zealand. There was no such reprise here, with Mendis conjuring up magnificent deliveries in both innings to breach Laxman's defences. A man of few words (in Sinhala), he admitted later though that the wicket of Dravid, bowled by the carrom ball in the first innings, had given him greatest pleasure.

To put things into historical perspective, it's been more than two decades since India were defeated by two spinners bowling so effectively in tandem. On that occasion, at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed made use of advice from Bishan Singh Bedi to thwart an Indian victory bid led by the redoubtable Sunil Gavaskar. The two picked up nine wickets apiece as Pakistan won the match, and series, by 16 runs.

Only three duos - O'Reilly (11 wickets) and Grimmett (8) at Trent Bridge in 1934, Lock (11) and Laker (8) in Headingley in 1958 and Prasanna (11) and Chandrasekhar (8) in Auckland in 1976 - have wreaked such havoc in the Test arena. But the more apt comparison in this case may be with Alf Valentine and Sonny Ramadhin, who combined for 18 wickets as West Indies routed England at Lord's in 1950.

Both men had played just two first-class games before embarking on that tour, but their vastly different styles brooked no answers. Like Murali, Valentine could turn the ball viciously, while Ramadhin was similar to Mendis in that he could spin the ball both ways with little or no change in action. Their efforts were immortalised in the calypso 'Cricket, Lovely Cricket' ["With those two little pals of mine, Ramadhin and Valentine"] and it'll be no surprise if the tune-happy Sri Lankans come up with something similar. It certainly won't be music to Indian ears.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo