Sri Lankan batsmen grind toothless India
The SSC has been a fortress of sorts for Sri Lanka in the recent past, and they set about continuing their dominant run at the venue with another imposing opening-day performance. The actors who put them in charge this time were the same as in Galle. Kumar Sangakkara and Tharanga Paranavitana served the Indians a painful reminder of the initiative lost on the first day of the series, cashing in on some unthreatening bowling that offered plenty of opportunities to score on a seemingly lifeless track.
The bowlers were expected to have a hard time on this pitch and events after MS Dhoni lost the toss reinforced the apprehensions the sides may have had of fielding first. The virtual absence of swing and the lack of movement off the deck, combined with poor lengths from the seamers, helped the Sri Lankan openers Tillakaratne Dilshan and Paranavitana take the initiative in the opening session. And the glimmer of hope that Dilshan's wicket provided following the introduction of spin was extinguished by a brilliant counter-attack from Sangakkara.
As Dhoni had predicted, the pitch offered more bounce than the one in Galle but the spinners created few chances, despite the accompanying turn. It was Sangakkara who initially unsettled the spinners, prompting Dhoni to set defensive fields soon after Dilshan's dismissal. In the very over that Pragyan Ojha had Dilshan caught at extra cover, Sangakkara slashed one through point for four and audaciously stepped out to loft him over mid-on.
Dilshan's brisk start to the innings had forced Dhoni to place deep points for both seamers, and Sangakkara's fluent beginning resulted in a long-on and deep midwicket being put in place for the spinners. And while the slow bowlers kept a slip and a short leg, they rarely bowled on a length to draw the batsmen forward.
Harbhajan Singh has a huge responsibility to bear, leading an inexperienced bowling attack, but the ease with which he was handled underlined the daunting task facing the visitors. Harbhajan changed angles and varied his flight but the Sri Lankan left-hand batsmen used the away spin to carve him through cover and point and used their feet to effect when the ball was tossed up. Sangakkara launched one over the bowler's head for a one-bounce four while Paranavitana, the more cautious of the two, charged down and swung him over the midwicket boundary.
The seamers, Ishant Sharma and Abhimanyu Mithun, who had struggled in the opening session, were targeted by Sangakkara after lunch. Facing deliveries that were bowled consistently back of a length, Sangakkara pulled and whipped them behind square and delicately guided those pitched even fractionally short through point and past gully. He was positive throughout, ensuring a steady flow of singles and twos, but had a scare when he edged Mithun just wide of gully while in the nineties. He brought up his 23rd Test century by dispatching Virender Sehwag over mid-on, and looked determined to bat India out of the Test.
Paranavitana was a little patchy to begin with. He was beaten on a couple of occasions by Mithun in the morning session, but Ishant gave him an opening with a short and wide delivery that was duly smacked through point. Tentative with his foot movement early on, Paranavitana gradually moved forward to deliveries pitched fuller and picked a couple of boundaries, beautifully driven past mid-off. While Sangakkara was constantly on the hunt for runs, Paranavitana remained solid in defence and ceded the floor to his captain, giving him the strike and intermittently finding the boundary with some crisp drives through the off side. Charged with anchoring the innings, he reached his second successive century moments before Sangakkara got his, but played on to a shortish delivery from Ishant after tea.
A sense of foreboding for the Indians was evident fairly early in the day, when Dilshan smacked four consecutive boundaries off Ishant Sharma in the fourth over. He dealt with Mithun similarly, cracking three tempting short deliveries to different parts of the ground to race to a half-century. He squandered an opportunity to reach three figures, two other batsmen did not, and with Mahela Jayawardene standing firm in his favourite venue, Sri Lanka have, yet again, capitalised on winning the toss.
Siddhartha Talya is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo