Fiery Ishant interrupts normal service
Test cricket allows for indulgences, a spell of play practically unrelated to the state of the match and the final outcome. The working over Ishant Sharma gave to the Sri Lankan batsmen in eight testing overs in the first session, both with old ball and new, might not mean much in terms of the result. This match, with 112 overs lost already and with India deflated in the middle session again, should still play out to one of the two conclusions that looked probable before the start of the day - a draw or a Sri Lankan win. During that session, though, all that didn't matter.
It was an individual contest that found a place despite not changing the fate of the team contest. A master batsman, Mahela Jayawardene, against a struggling fast bowler who suddenly found the right lengths and much-needed assistance from the pitch, which had been under covers for a long time. An ever-improving young allrounder, Angelo Mathews, against the same bowler, taking risks, counterattacking, before eventually falling to him.
The session was nothing like what had been happening before, and was nothing like what happened after. The ball moved around. Ishant bowled a length that couldn't be driven, nor could it be cut. He got movement both ways, getting some balls to jag in sharply and others to leave the batsmen slightly, not just hold its line.
For a change he beat the bat regularly; he got edges even more regularly. His follow-through got longer and he ended up closer to the batsmen - he had the confidence to do that. Four slips came in. Did his hair bounce more too?
Ishant started the day with the old ball, removing centurion Tharanga Paranavitana with his second delivery. Then he hit Thilan Samaraweera on the helmet first ball, and squared him up twice in that over. That he had given away 79 runs in the 14 overs before that hardly mattered.
Soon he came back with the new ball and started the interrogation. The second ball jumped at Jayawardene, the third left him. The fourth Jayawardene left alone, but it nipped back sharply, passing over the stumps. It is possible that Jayawardene left it on length, it is equally possible he expected it to go the other way. The fifth was fuller, making him play, cutting him in two. Jayawardene has scored centuries in Sri Lanka with less trouble than he went through in one over. Ishant's spell to Ricky Ponting obviously came to mind. Jayawardene, on his part, refused to commit on the front foot and push at deliveries. He stayed back and inside the line.
In his second over with the new ball, Ishant faced Mathews. First ball came in, second left him, third went straight, fourth seamed away again, taking the edge, between the slips and gully. The next ball was fuller, moving in, taking a thick edge for one. He finished the over, squaring up Jayawardene, getting a thick edge, past the slips again.
Ishant could have got a wicket with perhaps every delivery of those two overs, but his domination of the batsmen, however brief it might have been, was made more obvious by those uncertain plays and misses, the edges flying wide of the slips. In the third over with the new ball, Ishant beat Jayawardene with the away-going delivery again, his team-mates all appealed. Ishant just kept running through past the wicket without much of a reaction. He knew he hadn't got his man; he knew he would get him soon. The next ball seamed in sharply, the batsman was late with the flick, and Jayawardene had been had.
Mathews, the youngster, didn't care about relying too much on technique. He saw mid-off and mid-on were too close to him, and cleared them twice in one over. Every other loose ball in that spell, from either end, he punished. Ishant, though, followed it up with one shortish delivery outside off, seaming away again, taking the edge, capping off the spell with a wicket with his last ball before lunch.
There is every possibility that the spell might not amount to anything in the series, but it was the most exciting spell of play in the match before Muttiah Muralitharan came onto bowl in the evening and took out Sachin Tendulkar.
Perhaps because it was a fast bowler dominating in a land where fast bowlers have no business dominating. Perhaps because he was doing it against one of the best batsmen in the world. Perhaps because the said fast bowler had been through an elongated rough patch after a promising start to his career. Perhaps because he was doing it for a side that had looked inept with the ball, now raising hopes of a more competitive series. Perhaps because somewhere deep inside you were resigned to a draw, and here was some drama despite that.
Whatever it was, it was short-lived, and post lunch, the Sri Lankan batsmen - that is the Sri Lankan bowlers who were batting - started dominating again. Normal service had well and truly resumed.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo