Indian twist in the tail
India have long been suffering at the hands of opposition tails. The latest was when Lasith Malinga and Rangana Herath added 115 runs for eighth wicket in the first innings in Galle. That was one of the many points that contributed to a loss that shouldn't have been. Today, though, the boot was on the other foot: India's last three added 86, runs that would be twice as difficult to get when batting last on this crumbling beauty of a Test pitch.
For those Indian fans who can't forget the agonising partnerships featuring the opposition tailenders - and there are many - the stand between Abimanyu Mithun and Amit Mishra - 64 runs, 16.4 overs - might provide catharsis. It was that extraordinary spell of play that India needed on a tour full of woe. That something extra to cast doubt in the minds of the Sri Lankan batsmen. That slender lead to think of a win on this tour so far.
When Mithun and Mishra came together, Sri Lanka had been superb strategically. They had stopped being defensive against Virender Sehwag. Suraj Randiv got sharp turn from round the stumps, packed the on side, and Sehwag found the pitch was a bit too difficult to force that inside-out shot. VVS Laxman and Suresh Raina batted beautifully for their fifties, but there was alarming turn from the pitch, which Ajantha Mendis exploited from round the stumps. MS Dhoni's injured finger was peppered by Lasith Malinga, and Sri Lanka were sensing a lead of around 50 when Mishra joined Mithun.
Mithun had already looked comfortable in scoring 12 off 18 by then, but now Sri Lanka would come at him and his partner with full force. Soon Mishra was digging out yorkers, getting his right index finger magic-sprayed, all in an over. In the next over, Mithun's turn arrived. One bouncer flew left of his shoulder, another jammed into his glove. New ball duly arrived. At least four bouncers Mithun took on the hand.
Neither men flinched or backed away or played an unconvincing hook. That they got fingers around their bats was an effort enough. When they could get out of the line they did, when they couldn't, they managed to keep the ball down.
It wasn't all bloody-minded determination, though. Both of them planned and picked the bowlers and deliveries to hit. Mithun was quick to read Mendis' googlies. Whenever he saw flight, he tried to hit down the ground, powerfully. But with the new ball, they had to wait. Wait for the yorkers, wait for the bouncers. Get behind one, try to avoid the other. Nine overs went, 25 runs came, toes were saved, fingers were hammered.
Mishra jumped out as soon as he saw Mendis, lofting him over midwicket. Release was badly needed then. In the next over, Mishra produced the shot of the partnership, flicking a Malinga yorker to long leg. Mithun joined in, cutting a short and wide one from Malinga in front of point. Had the tail caved in, Sri Lanka would have been leading by about 70-80; they were now looking at level scores.
The difference on a breaking pitch is huge. "At one stage we were 350 for 7, and after that Mithun and Amit Mishra batted really well," Virender Sehwag said. "They were responsible for us getting the lead. Full credit goes to the tailenders."
Both of them missed fifties, but as it turned out that too helped India. Sehwag may not have turned up with the bat on Thursday, but he sure as hell did with the ball, removing Tharanga Paranavitana and Tillakaratne Dilshan with sharp spin in the one hour or so India got in the evening.
Apart from the team cause, this would have contributed to their personal confidence too. Mishra has had a horror match with the ball, bowling seven no-balls, getting warnings for running on the pitch, conceding 140 runs for a solitary wicket. Mithun has run in hard throughout the tour, put his all in, been fit, been strong - but with few results. With the bat too, he fought for close to one hour of the final day in Galle, and came close to scoring a fifty at the SSC. Neither of those efforts altered the way the match went, but here he and Mishra have given themselves a great chance to give their batsmen a manageable chase in the final innings of the series.
If they do well with the ball on the fourth day, at some stage they will be bowling to the Sri Lankan tail too. If they run through the Sri Lanka lower order then, it will have been some change of fortunes for a team that is often on the wrong end of lower-order contributions.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo