Close series between rivals with bare cupboards
This Indian team is pretty adept at digging a hole for itself. It is equally adept and finding a way out of it too. That's why writing this side off is hazardous. Here we are talking about the Test side, not other disciplines. It was an incredible show of character that with their most inexperienced attack since 2000-01, on a ground where Sri Lanka have not lost since 1994, with three first-choice and one second-choice player out, India came back to square this series. India, after losing all the tosses, also ended Sri Lanka's nine-year run of not losing a home Test after winning the toss.
When asked if this was the most special win of his captaincy career, considering the huge effort required, considering that for the first 11 days of the series a Test win looked completely out of reach, MS Dhoni sounded blasé. He had reason to feel so. "It's not the first time I'm the captain and we're one-down and we have to win to level the series," he said. "To pick one of the Test matches among the few I've played or captained is difficult. Every win is special, like the South Africa Test we played in Kolkata or any other."
There is some truth to that. This team has developed a habit of bouncing back immediately after a devastating loss. In 2007-08 South Africa absolutely demolished India in Ahmedabad, only to see them come back in Kanpur. Later that year India bounced back in Galle after a demoralising loss at the SSC. After the infamous SCG defeat, they stunned Australia at the WACA. Earlier this year, they staged a comeback in the Test Dhoni talked about, immediately after Dale Steyn's destruction in Nagpur.
"It shows what this team is all about and what we can do in pressure situations," Gary Kirsten, a man known for doggedness himself, said of the P Sara win. That they keep putting themselves in pressure situations is something India need to address.
For starters, they haven't played a single international game - across formats - with their first-choice XI since Sri Lanka's last tour of India, last November. When they were fighting to justify their No. 1 status, they should ideally have been nursing their niggles, getting ready for a season that will culminate in the World Cup at home. They made a slow start obviously - it took the rookie bowlers three Tests and a helpful pitch to make an impact.
The batsmen failed in Galle, for which they had only one excuse, that of Lasith Malinga's magic, and since then India were fighting a near-impossible fight. Good fortune arrived when Sachin Tendulkar was dropped with India fighting to avoid the follow-on at the SSC, and since then the batting line-up ceased being just Virender Sehwag. Tendulkar, Suresh Raina and VVS Laxman joined in, playing big knocks at crucial times.
That to the Indians this drawn series seemed as good as a win is a tribute to how good Sri Lanka are at home. They know their conditions perfectly, they know exactly how to play in those conditions, and they rarely fail to execute those plans. For the first 11 days, it went almost perfectly according to the script, except for Tendulkar's dropped catch.
Kumar Sangakkara batted beautifully for his century, double-century and fifty in the three Tests, Tharanga Paranavitana promised to solve their opening problem, Mahela Jayawardene contributed even though he didn't look at his flowing best. Thilan Samaraweera wasn't exactly needed in the first two Tests, but when his team needed him in the third Test, he was there.
Malinga and Muttiah Muralitharan made for a heady first Test, a perfect farewell to Murali. The need to preserve Malinga hurt Sri Lanka in the second Test, and even in the third, Sangakkara got him to bowl just six overs on the final day. It would be premature to call it bad captaincy, because perhaps Malinga's body was at the brink again.
It is easy to forget that Sri Lanka were themselves low on resources after Murali's retirement, a fact underlined by the need to risk Malinga's body. Suraj Randiv was a good addition, as he showed with that valiant spell over the last two days at the P Sara Oval, but the bowling cupboard looks slightly bare.
The first Test wasn't gripping throughout, but once India started crumbling, it was always going to be an exciting finish. P Sara Oval was perhaps the perfect Test, except for some tired captaincy at times from both leaders. It is a credit to both teams that despite the overkill of cricket between the two nations, despite the dead pitch at the SSC, despite the lack of bowling resources, they played out two tense Test matches. Now for some break in India-Sri Lanka ties…
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo