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August 18, 2008
The crisp, cream clothing made way for dazzling blue, but the script read much the same. Watching India clearly weighed down by the finger freak waiting in the wings, unsure about how to tackle tidy medium-pace, anxious about what could be unleashed at any moment, it was hard not to get a sense of déjà vu. The Test specialists were gone, but the one-day recruits suffered a similar fate.
India's latest defeat against Sri Lanka wasn't all about Ajantha Mendis, though at the rate he is picking up awards and cheques, he's certain to be a richer man and teach Arun Lal, the post-match emcee all tour, a fair amount of Sinhalese. Mendis played a key role, but India were severely dented after Sri Lanka's new-ball duo nipped out three early wickets.
That pair took much of the pressure off Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan. Chaminda Vaas breached Gautam Gambhir's defence with the second ball of the match and Nuwan Kulasekera bowled very well, complementing his partner, to take two wickets. After five overs India were 9 for 1; after ten 29 for 2; after 15, 42 for 3; after the Powerplays they were reeling at 73 for 4. Therein lies the command that Sri Lanka took over the opposition. Vaas and Kulasekera choked the top order and Thilan Thushara, bowling tidy left-arm seam, maintained the pressure. It was a clinical example of attacking through partnerships.
More importantly, it was the perfect setting for Mendis to come in for the last over of the Powerplays. India were unsettled by their early losses and apprehensive about Mendis' arrival. They were unsure about how to handle the situation, and it proved detrimental.
When Mendis did arrive, India's batsmen looked no closer to deciphering him. His first strike hurt so deep that India failed to recover. Yuvraj Singh was beaten first ball by a slider, survived an extremely tight lbw shout, tried to dictate terms with a six over long-on, and was then utterly befuddled by a quicker one that skidded on. Too far forward, Yuvraj was left looking silly. India's most experienced player had fallen for the dangling carrot, and the reverberations were loud.
Thereon it was much the same as in the Tests. Mendis left the rest to fumble about in the dark. Mahendra Singh Dhoni fidgeted and fussed about his crease, playing and missing until he was put out of his misery by an outside-edge that flew to slip. Runs dried up. The heat turned up. After the Asia Cup, Dhoni said Mendis just couldn't be read at all; nothing has changed.
|India's players have bounced between analysing footage, hoping that his aura may wear off and stressing on reading him off the pitch. What they need to understand is that for the time being Mendis is beyond understanding. Hard as it may sound, they need to take him out of the equation, stop worrying about him|
Again bowling accurately and lethally, Mendis finished with 3 for 21 off nine overs, helping reduce India to 87 for 7 after which he was taken out of the attack. All Murali had to do was twirl his wrist and gobble up the lower order, even if his last over went for 14. The problem with India's approach against Mendis was that everyone wanted to build, nobody wanted to do maintenance.
"Creativity is not like a freight train going down the tracks," wrote Bob Dylan in his autobiography, Chronicles. "It's something that has to be caressed and treated with a great deal of respect. If your mind is intellectually in the way, it will stop you. You've got to programme your brain not to think too much."
Flip that around and you understand India's predicament against Mendis. They've been bamboozled, nay awed, by Mendis' bag of tricks since he destroyed them in Karachi. Mendis is special, no doubt about it. India's players have bounced between analysing footage, hoping that his aura may wear off and stressing on reading him off the pitch. What they need to understand is that for the time being Mendis is beyond understanding. Hard as it may sound, they need to take him out of the equation, stop worrying about him.
Virender Sehwag didn't think too much about Mendis in Galle and finished the match with 251 runs. There's a possibility he may be out of the whole series, and that's a massive worry, for in a sense India lost this match before Dhoni went out for the toss. They lost this match some time during training yesterday when Sehwag injured himself. Sehwag was India's highest scorer in the Test series, handling Mendis with aplomb during his double hundred in Galle, and their best bet at providing a solid start.
Dhoni spoke of the added responsibility on Sehwag to pass on advice to India's one-day recruits. In terms of his experience against Sri Lanka's spinners and his ability to provide starts, an integral asset in cricket, Sehwag's loss was brutal. In his last ODI he hammered an exhilarating 60 from just 35 balls, helping India storm to 76 from just nine overs.
Without their best player, India's indecision crept in from the onset. The openers may have thought attacking Sri Lanka's medium-pacers was the best option given their inefficiency in the Tests. That didn't work, and they had no answer to Mendis.
Even if they do a half-baked job of something, India's batsmen will find themselves one-eyed men in the kingdom of the blind. But at the moment they remain indecisive about picking one approach; it's a toss-up between throwing in the towel or trying to force the pace against spin. India need to find a way to rotate singles, as well as score runs.
"Its important to learn," said Dhoni, "because everyone makes mistakes. Unless you learn from those your own, your team's graph won't go up."
There's only a day's gap for the second match. India's time starts now.
Why is India still struggling to pick Ajantha Mendis? Have your say
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