Dravid dismissal adds familiar twist
Such have been the vicissitudes of this Test that the third day would have been a letdown without a last-minute twist. Rahul Dravid went ruing what would have seemed to him the injustices of the review system, but his dismissal meant the match was wrenched open after India had begun to put their seal on it.
It is perhaps simplistic, but one way of gauging a match is to count the sessions' winners. At Colombo last week Sri Lanka had won all but the first session; this match has been different. On the first day, India took the first session conclusively and Sri Lanka the second equally emphatically; the first session on the second day was 50-50, while Sri Lanka took the second and India the third. The first two sessions of the third day went India's way and, had they taken the third, would perhaps have been placed conclusively ahead. But Sri Lanka managed to snatch the third session by taking three top-order wickets, and the score now reads India 4.5, Sri Lanka 3.5. India are ahead at the moment, but just about; Sri Lanka are a wicket away from effecting a collapse.
Until those late strikes, India looked like altering the script. Wickets have fallen in clusters for the most part in this match, and Sri Lanka had continued the trend by losing first two, then three. However, the Indian batsmen defied the trend by putting 90 for the first wicket, 54 for the second, and 56 for the third. The pitch hasn't broken yet but it assisted the spinners all day, and it demanded vigilance from batsmen, and considerable skill and a touch of bravery, to score on it.
India have been fortunate in that they have in this Test two openers who are such good players of spin. Openers are, in many ways, best placed to score runs on Sri Lankan pitches because the new ball is not the most threatening in these conditions - in fact, it allows openers to get their feet moving before the spinners arrive. And Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir can not only read the spinners, they have the skills and wide range of strokes to score off them heavily and quickly.
It wasn't a surprise that Muttiah Muralitharan was employed in the sixth over but it was a measure of Sri Lanka's respect for Sehwag that they posted three men on the leg-side boundary. There were four more in the inner cordon on leg as Murali settled to bowl round the wicket. Sehwag's second scoring shot off Murali was a thundering sweep that sped between deep midwicket and deep square leg. In the next over, another went in the same direction, this time over the boundary. That ended Murali's spell and, when he resumed, he went over the wicket and Sehwag reverted to milking him on the off side. Till he miscalculated his lofted cover drive against Chaminda Vaas, Sehwag had looked like galloping away with the match. Irrespective of what happens now, it has been an extraordinary performance from him: for the first time in his career he followed up a century with a half-century - his previous highest second-innings score after a first-innings hundred was 38 - and, if India do go on to win it, it will be remembered as Sehwag's Test.
But Gambhir's contribution has been no less vital. He has been India's most consistent batsman on the tour so far and, as his scores would suggest, seems to be growing with every innings. He has learnt from his mistakes in the first Test, when he twice threw his wicket away against Murali, but has not let that affect his shot-making. His footwork against the spinners was exceptional today, as was the certainty of his strokeplay. He repeatedly cover-drove Murali by advancing down the wicket and, till Ajantha Mendis undid him with a pearl, Gambhir treated his variations with utmost assuredness.
The most absorbing battle of the day was, of course, between Mendis and Rahul Dravid. Before today, Dravid had faced 32 balls from Mendis and scored eight runs while being dismissed three times. Those numbers don't say how many times he was deceived and beaten. Today, he scored a single off his first ball - a firm push to cover - and hit his fifth ball, a googly that was marginally short, for a four. In the next over Mendis beat him twice with his flicked legcutters, the first one nearly exploding off the pitch, but in between Dravid cracked him to the point boundary.
Mendis continued to trouble him, three times pinning him on the leg on the back foot, but slowly, and surely, the real Dravid emerged. Ball by ball, over by over, Dravid extricated himself from the spell that Mendis had on him. The footwork grew surer, gone was the front-foot jab that had cost him his wicket twice, and 25 of his 44 runs came off Mendis's bowling. But perhaps it was his restored confidence that cost him his wicket, and provided the match its customary twist.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo