India haul themselves from the precipice
The great escape artists have done it again. As has so often been the case in recent times, India finished the first Test of a series like a man holding on to the edge of a cliff by his fingernails. A week later, they once again looked like world-beaters, riding on a wave of momentum created by sensational batting from Virender Sehwag, canny bowling from Harbhajan Singh and a devastating new-ball burst from Ishant Sharma. Sri Lanka, so dominant at the Sinhalese Sports Club, capitulated dismally on the fourth afternoon and now it's they that teeter nervously on the edge of a precipice.
For them to make the 307 required to clinch the series, someone needed to come out and emulate Graeme Smith. But the two individuals most capable of doing that, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, were both back in the pavilion by the time 10 runs were on the board, undone by an Ishant spell that Anil Kumble reckoned was every bit as good as the one he bowled to Ricky Ponting in Perth. Thilan Samaraweera, who batted beautifully for his unconquered 67, and Tillakaratne Dilshan briefly relit the flame, but Ishant, bowling as quick as the wind that whips in across the Galle Fort, was on hand soon after tea to extinguish the last hopes of home success. Some of the strokes that followed weren't too distinguished, but as Jayawardene said later, 10 for 3 wasn't the ideal platform from which to scale improbable heights.
Much has been written about India's inconsistency, but it's an affliction that Sri Lanka also suffer from. Just a few months ago, they played West Indies off the park in Guyana, only to squander an opportunity to win the series in Trinidad. Going back a little further, they held the first-innings lead in all three Tests against Australia - including a massive 161-run buffer at Galle - but managed to lose every game.
It will irk the supporters no end that Ajantha Mendis picked up a 10-wicket haul in his second Test, and still finished on the wrong side of a 170-run hiding. Muttiah Muralitharan, his more illustrious colleague, finished with 5 for 200, but was never the threat that he had been at the SSC. For that, India can thank Sehwag, whose batting against both the spinners was incandescently brilliant. Over the two innings, he faced 181 balls from the duo, and struck 12 fours and four sixes on his way to 150 runs. It was an unmistakable message of intent after the SSC surrender, and with Gautam Gambhir following his lead, India weren't left to rue the fact that their more celebrated batsmen couldn't convert cameos into innings of substance.
Sehwag's batting was so sublime that the Man-of-the-Match adjudicators wouldn't have had to think too much, but it's safe to say that you won't often see a game where a bowler takes 10 for 153 and has to be content with a supporting role, however significant. This was a huge step for Harbhajan on the road to redemption, and his bowling had all the vitality and guile that has often been absent when he plays away from home.
This was his first ten-for in 31 overseas Tests, eclipsing his previous best figures of 8 for 180 at Sabina Park in 2002. His interventions in the first innings, when he dismissed the well-set Malinda Warnapura and Sangakkara, were especially critical, giving India an advantage that they would never squander. Unlike the Kanpur Test against South Africa, where he picked up 7 for 96 last April, there was nothing dubious about the quality of this playing surface. With no gaping cracks or craters to land the ball on, thoughtful controlled bowling was the name of the game and Harbhajan came up with exactly that, varying trajectory and pace cleverly to confound the same batsmen who had played the Indian spinners with comfort bordering on contempt at the SSC.
The last time Harbhajan took 10 in a match, against Sri Lanka in Ahmedabad in 2005, it helped seal an Indian series victory. With Rahul Dravid ill and in hospital, Sehwag was his captain in that game. Between the two of them, they have breathed life into this series, and it's Sri Lanka who now have to show their resilience with the decider just four days away.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo