An unexpected pace revival
When you consider that Zaheer Khan hadn't played one-day cricket since November and Munaf Patel since one miserable day in February, and that Praveen Kumar had taken one wicket from four matches at an average of 174 in his last series, it's rather stunning they have been the most inspiring aspect of India's current campaign. The trio bowled creditably in the series opener and utilised the helpful conditions in the second match; a third consecutive professional display at the Premadasa proved that Dambulla was no flash in the pan.
India lost a real threat in Ishant Sharma when he was rested after the Tests, but their bowlers have done very well to expose the lack of strength in Sri Lanka's line-up. The hosts are too dependent on their top three and the middle order has come a cropper against India's pace attack.
Spearheading them is Zaheer, one of the unsung performers in the Test series. He has always had a distinct ability to trouble left-handed batsman - he had the measure of Graeme Smith in South Africa in 2006 - and, in this series, Zaheer has reined in Sanath Jayasuriya and twice dismantled Kumar Sangakkara. In the second ODI, Zaheer's strikes made much easier his team-mates' task of negotiating Sri Lanka's spinners. Zaheer was excellent, knocking over Sangakkara and bowling at lively pace.
On Sunday, he and Praveen snuffed out Sri Lanka's top order when India were defending a target of 238. The flawed judgments of Jayasuriya and Sangakkara started the problems for the home side. Jayasuriya found it extremely difficult to score off Zaheer, and chased a wide one from Praveen. Having seen Sangakkara trapped lbw to Zaheer, Chamara Kapugedera shuffled across his stumps and was given out in the same manner. It soon became 40 for 4 when Zaheer beat Chamara Silva for pace and movement.
Zaheer has been India's spearhead for some time now, at times forced into the responsibility. Critically, in this series, he has succeeded in striking early. He has proven to be a handful in Sri Lankan conditions and, when he gets the ball to jag back from short of a length, he has often been unplayable. On Sunday, after two wickets, he allowed Jayawardene only two runs from 23 balls, then came back to deliver a much-needed wicket at the death, finishing with 3 for 23. The bottom line is that Zaheer has been consistent.
Complementing Zaheer admirably are Praveen, Munaf and Harbhajan Singh. Zaheer has been the best, but the pressure added by Praveen has been telling. Not a quick bowler by any degree, Praveen has been effective by relying on subtle changes of pace and length. He kept his cool after Jayasuriya was dropped yesterday, and his dismissal of Kapugedera came with a crafty slower ball. It was a case of two bowlers bowling well in tandem.
Munaf's return from injury - he has been out of the team for nearly half a year - has been a positive development for India. He has slotted in as the first-change bowler and worked to quell charges of a lazy attitude and poor fielding. Mahendra Singh Dhoni admitted as much after he took two in the first ODI - and it has shown in his ability to hit the right length repeatedly. Having cramped Tillakaratne Dilshan for two overs, Munaf's leg-cutter to dismiss him in the third ODI was a gem. He has successfully sacrificed pace for accuracy, and that's made him a good third pace-bowling option.
Harbhajan has been tidy throughout the series, even though he hasn't made quick breakthroughs. India have banked on one specialist spinner in the last two games and Harbhajan has done the job adequately. After the Tests, he realised he was pushing the ball a little too quickly and he changed his approach on a slower Dambulla pitch. It was the same at the Premadasa, where he bowled Chaminda Vaas in his first over. After the initial few overs, Harbhajan started tossing the ball up and slowed things down.
India went in with only four specialist bowlers at the Premadasa, but by the time Dhoni handed the ball to Yuvraj Singh, six wickets had fallen for cheap. "We had to manage with 237 and there was some worry when we used a fifth bowler, but Yuvraj bowled well," Dhoni said. "He turned the ball and that really worked for us. The conditions are slow here and your part-timers will have an effect. But we don't have a Virender Sehwag or Sachin Tendulkar, who turn the ball consistently. We have to see who is bowling well on a particular day and use him. Hopefully there won't be a day when none of them work out."
By the looks of things, it shouldn't really count, as all four bowlers have combined well for India so far. A maiden series victory in Sri Lanka beckons.
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo