Spinning it right
Ajantha Mendis and Harbhajan Singh came into this match under varying levels of pressure but bound by a common thread - both were bowling as junior partner to a spin-bowling legend. At the end of a gripping second day's play, both Mendis and Harbhajan outbowled their illustrious partners and turned in performances which, at different stages of the day, put their team on top. Mendis, bowling his bag of tricks, triggered another Indian collapse in which they lost their last six wickets for 51 runs. Harbhajan, tossing it up and varying his pace in a refreshing change, sent Sri Lanka on a post-tea slide from 137 for 1 to 192 for 5.
Neither Mendis nor Harbhajan had much support from the famous names at the other end. Muttiah Muralitharan - rather surprisingly, given his previous exploits in Galle - took just two wickets while Anil Kumble was plain listless. It was left to the younger men to step up, and how.
Back in 1972, Bobby Fischer carried an immense burden of expectation when he faced off against Boris Spassky in what came to be termed the 'Match of the Century'. Fischer had Spassky to beat and the hype of being a child prodigy to live up to; Mendis had to bowl alongside Muralitharan, the most successful bowler ever, and also follow up on the eight wickets on his Test debut. "I never intended to get awed by bowling with Murali," Mendis said. "I gained the inspiration and confidence to go out and bowl against some of the world's best batsmen because of my training in the army which has hardened my outlook and helped bring discipline into my bowling."
Trained as an artillery gunner, Mendis relied on his amazing accuracy to flummox India. Rare is the day in Sri Lanka when Murali is rendered ineffective but Mendis applied the pressure admirably. VVS Laxman was undone by a short ball, lobbing a tame catch to midwicket. Dinesh Karthik was caught plumb in front, missing a skidding carrom ball. Harbhajan was made to look like a complete novice by another carrom ball that cut past the bat, and Mendis celebrated emphatically. He finished the innings with 6 for 117, the first of what should be many five-fors.
This was his first big test, with Virender Sehwag going after him. Yet he was accurate, still making the batsmen play every ball, still coming up with unplayable deliveries. It was a sensational return for a bowler in his second Test, but most of the praise went to Sehwag's glorious unbeaten 201 out of an Indian total of 329. It's extremely difficult to pick out the last time a spinner took six first-innings wickets and was overshadowed.
"Although India were determined to attack my bowling I didn't come to the match with any definite plans," Mendis said, "but I knew if I did the right things I would be successful." Even in the today's age of technology and slow-motion replays, Mendis continues to fox batsmen. Just 23, he has also proved that a rookie needn't necessarily crumple under pressure like a soft-drink can.
A few hours later, Harbhajan found redemption of sorts. He was under pressure to deliver after a controversial year, one in which he was accused of making a racist remark on the field in Sydney and banned for slapping Sreesanth during an Indian Premier League game. In the last two-and-a-half years, he averaged 44.46 outside India. If ever Harbhajan needed to prove that he could win India a match overseas, it was now, especially with Kumble not performing.
India didn't have many runs to play with, but there was still a marked difference in his bowling. Harbhajan looped the ball as opposed to darting it in on middle and leg, as he has done for the past few years. The change, as he pointed out, worked. "I bowled quicker through the air in this match because the ball was drifting a bit," he said. "I tried to mix my pace and that worked for me today. The odd ball was spinning, so you need to set your field accordingly. That creates chances."
That's what the basics of offspin are: line and length and variations in pace. Chances were indeed created, none more successfully than in the over in which he dismissed Thilan Samaraweera and Tillakaratne Dilshan. Both deliveries dipped on the batsmen sharply and they misread the line. Samawareewa was out lbw, Dilshan caught at forward short leg. This track was more conducive than a "flat" SSC pitch, Harbhajan said, and his strikes gave India leverage after a strong second-wicket partnership threatened to put Sri Lanka level.
Mendis and Harbhajan are different bowlers at different stages of their career. Mendis is a genius in the works, Harbhajan a proven match-winner searching for redemption. Today, divided by style but united by purpose, they combined to produce a fantastic day's cricket.
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo