Sri Lanka exploit toss advantage again
One of the rare certainties of this uncertain game is a visiting team's fate when it loses the toss in Sri Lanka. Unless something miraculous happens, the best the said team can achieve is a draw. One of the underrated aspects of Sri Lanka's dominance at home is how they ruthlessly bat out oppositions after winning the toss. They last lost a home Test after winning the toss in March 2001. The corresponding dates for Australia, South Africa and India are December 2008, December 2007 and April 2008. That run of Sri Lanka's isn't likely to end in this match either.
It is a simple and obvious plan, and is executed perfectly almost every time. The pitch is usually not very testing on the first day. The batsmen who look good to begin with go on to make big hundreds, the sapping humidity leaves tired opposition batsmen to play out the final hour on the second day, the pitch starts deteriorating, Muttiah Muralitharan is at them all the time, and they know they are in for a fight to save the match. The converse doesn't always hold: when Sri Lanka are forced to field first, the opposition batsmen are not nearly as efficient and ruthless.
The sight of losing a toss is all the more depressing for a side that is playing one of its weakest attacks in recent times, and is not particularly known for disciplined fielding. These are tough conditions for a fielding side to stay alert throughout the day, but high energy and alert fielding are friends visiting sides in Sri Lanka can do with. Chances rarely come their way, and they can't afford to let three half-chances to go through, like India did today. Kumar Sangakkara was missed on 65, Tharanga Paranavitana on 35 and 90, deep into the extended middle session.
On a tough day, the Indian bowlers came up short. Ishant Sharma was unlucky, in that none of the four edges he induced from Paranavitana went to hand, but he also went for 79 runs in 14 overs, and bowled four no-balls. He didn't seem to find the in-between length of his earlier spells. "By his own admission, he could have avoided certain type of deliveries," said Gary Kirsten, India's coach, of Ishant's effort. "He bowled well in the last spell and hopefully he will continue to build his confidence as he goes along."
That the debutant Abhimanyu Mithun was the best bowler on display told the story, and he was strictly steady. "I thought Mithun bowled superbly for his first Test, great to see a really athletic young bowler," Kirsten said. "He certainly showed he is capable of doing well at this level. He bowled at decent pace and good areas for most of the day so I am pretty impressed."
The 7-2 leg-side fields for Pragyan Ojha showed the kind of confidence the spinner drew from the captain. Harbhajan Singh, recovering from a flu, was clearly suffering from weakness, seen bent and holding onto his knees after overs, had to go off the field, and was reduced to bowling well outside the off stump of the left-hand batsmen. That Harbhajan at 70 to 80% is a better choice than the next spinner in the squad is not a healthy sign for India at all.
The simple plan worked down to every detail for Sri Lanka, except for Kumar Sangakkara's soft dismissal - he perhaps didn't realise the presence of a deep midwicket and pulled straight into his lap - and the rain that gave them only 68 overs of play on the first day.
The pitch gave an ominous reminder of its existence about half-an-hour before rain forced a premature end to the day's play. Ishant, who had bowled through the day without much help, got one to nip back in towards Paranavitana - not merely hold its line - and hit the batsman in the ribs. The puff of dust there was a tell tale sign that batting will get significantly tougher. Rain and a rare collapse permitting, the Indian batsmen, after having fielded for close to 140 overs, will have a tricky period before stumps tomorrow to start their quest to not fall behind in the series.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo