Gambhir stars in fourth straight win
India marched to their longest winning streak - nine matches - with a comprehensive win that pushed Sri Lanka further towards their first 5-0 ODI whitewash. The victory was built around Gautam Gambhir's personal best and Mahendra Singh Dhoni's 94 at No. 3, innings that helped set Sri Lanka a target of 333, 62 more than the highest-ever chased at the Premadasa Stadium. Sri Lanka hit the ground running at the start of their chase but Praveen Kumar and Pragyan Ojha eventually choked off the run supply.
The toss was won yet again by Dhoni, his ninth success in ten games against Sri Lanka, and it proved crucial as Ojha and the part-timers looked more effective under lights than even Muttiah Muralitharan did in the first half of the match. Murali did break the record for the most wickets in ODIs but his landmark victim, Gambhir, had scored 150 by then.
The toss was not the only correct call Dhoni made today. He promoted himself to No. 3 for the first time as captain after the early dismissal of Virender Sehwag. The last time he went in at No. 3, against Bangladesh, Dhoni had added 87 with Gambhir, who scored his second ODI century. Dhoni missed a hundred today after adding 188 with Gambhir, but maintained his superlative record at one-drop. Gambhir went on to make the highest individual score in Sri Lanka.
The total of 332 was achieved only after a difficult start. The pitch at the R Premadasa offered some movement with the new ball and Farveez Maharoof and Nuwan Kulasekara troubled the openers.
After Sehwag's fall - to a sharp catch by Sanath Jayasuriya at mid-off that was about the only moment of inspiration in the field - Gambhir and Dhoni were not given easy offerings. India hit only five boundaries in the first 14 overs and Gambhir had to step out and loft to break the shackles.
In the absence of boundaries, Gambhir and Dhoni ran with ferocity and the kind of understanding that Gambhir and Sehwag demonstrate. The Sri Lankan fielding wilted under the pressure, managing three misfields, not backing up well twice, and allowing too many twos in the outfield. The batsmen were alert to every opportunity, even running overthrows to ricochets off the stumps. Between them, Dhoni and Gambhir took 25 twos and five threes. Dhoni and Gambhir stepped up the pace when Mahela Jayawardene turned to his fourth and fifth bowlers. In back-to-back overs, Gambhir hit Angelo Mathews for a six to bring up his half-century and Dhoni treated Muttiah Muralitharan similarly to reach his. Dhoni looked for another higher gear but top-edged Jayasuriya to short third man when he was six short of his century.
Following the loss of three quick wickets, Gambhir switched from steady accumulator to ruthless hitter. He was on 87 off 98 balls when Yusuf got out, but scored 63 off the next 49. Along with Gambhir, Suresh Raina kept finding the gaps and India scored 97 in the last 12 overs.
Facing a daunting target, Sri Lanka's best chance was for Tillakaratne Dilshan and Jayasuriya to take on India's new-ball attack of Praveen Kumar and Irfan Pathan. They got off to a blazing start but the weight of the required run-rate was too much and both batsmen fell trying to manufacture shots. Kumar Sangakkara scored an impressive half-century but with wickets falling at the other end, he did not have it easy.
Unruly elements in the crowd interrupted play for the third match in a row just before Sri Lanka came unstuck. This time around, Dhoni led his team off the field. Only 17.2 overs had been bowled then, and 27 minutes were lost to the disruption. Play resumed only after a few stands were vacated.
Before the interruption, Praveen Kumar bowled an eight-over spell during which he reined Sri Lanka in. He had conceded only 33 of the 102 runs at the end of 16 overs, 12 of which came in his second over when Dilshan got stuck into him. At the other end, Jayasuriya took delight in flicking Irfan Pathan off his pads and hitting him over extra cover. However, he tried one shot too many and pulled Irfan straight to short cover where Rohit Sharma reacted quickly. Praveen had the final laugh in the battle against Dilshan, after the batsman top-edged a pull yet again. Between them Jayasuriya and Dilshan had scored 61 in 65 balls, but their dismissals meant Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene had to consolidate for a while.
After the interruption, Sri Lanka lost the plot in face of disconcerting turn the Indian spinners got from the pitch. Ojha was the most impressive, casting the first seeds of doubt by spinning the ball across Jayawardene regularly.
Ojha bowled better than his 1 for 34 suggests and the part-time spinners benefited from the shackles that he imposed. Sri Lanka lost their last eight wickets for 125. Only nine boundaries and two sixes were hit after the 16th over, all of them after the match had practically been lost.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo