Pace of pitch, not rashness, cost India - Dhoni
It was that kind of day for India. The first ball Virat Kohli chased outside off stump, he edged to the wicketkeeper. The first ball Rohit Sharma inside-edged, he played on. Ditto Suresh Raina. Virender Sehwag departed courtesy an outstanding return-catch by Thisara Perera. Before they knew it, India were 41 for 4. Soon, before the floodlights had come on in the Hambantota jungle, India had been bowled out for 138 in 33.3 overs, their fourth-lowest ODI total in the past five years. The three lowest have also come in Sri Lanka.
This is more or less the same line-up that had made 330, 289, 304 and 321 in its previous four innings before this series. This was the same ground on which India had made 314 three days ago. Thisara Perera had gone for 70 runs in that game. Today, his figures read 3-3-0-3 at one stage. Had Angelo Mathews not put down MS Dhoni at first slip, they would have read 3-3-0-4. It was that kind of day for India.
What a difference playing on an adjacent pitch on the same ground can make, which is what MS Dhoni said was responsible for India's batsmen doing what they did. "The pitch was next to the wicket we played on last time but it behaved in a completely different way," Dhoni said. "Initially the wicket was slightly on the slower side. Once Virat [Kohli] got out we lost a couple of more wickets very quickly. Before the batsmen could assess the wicket, we lost two wickets played on. I thought after that it was too much for batsmen like Irfan [Pathan] and Ashwin to come in and take us out of trouble."
Mahela Jayawardene, though, did not think the pitch played as big a role in India's capitulation. "The wicket I don't think was that bad," Jayawardene said. "Probably a touch slower, there were quite a few good balls as well. We bowled in good areas, created pressure, maybe couple of bad shots as well but I will take that any day. The important thing with the Indian batting line-up is picking up wickets and that's the only way we can control things and that is what we did today."
Dhoni, who was caught behind trying to force a not-so-short and not-so-wide ball off the back foot, did not think the strokes attempted by the India batsmen were reckless; he felt they were just unfortunate to be dismissed in the way they fell. "I don't think they were shots that were really rash. People were looking for singles. If you see Rohit's ball [the one off which he was dismissed], the shot was on. But he got an inside edge and it went onto the stumps. It could have been his lucky day if it hadn't hit the stumps and he was still there to carry on with his innings. It is part and parcel of the game and a big learning curve. Hope the batsmen learn and they assess the wicket very quickly [in the next game]."
India have been dismissed for 103 and 88 in Dambulla before and Dhoni was asked whether those conditions were comparable to Hambantota. "I don't think it was very similar because what usually happens in Dambulla is, if it is a day-night game, the second half becomes very difficult [for the batsmen]. The last time we played there, it [the pitch] was a bit spongy; before that, it usually used to keep a bit low and still [the ball] used to move around a lot.
"Over here the wicket was slightly different, it [the ball] was stopping before coming on. I don't think there was too much swing for the bowlers, though there was a bit of breeze - meaning you can swing it a bit - but nothing unusual. I just thought the pace of the wicket was not really coming onto the bat and that's the reason why we lost too many wickets initially."
Dhoni said, overall, he was happy with the team's showing in the two games in Hambantota. "The boys adjusted well to the conditions whether it was the bowling or the batting department. Today the performance wasn't so good but still, the kind of wind we faced here was the kind that one usually gets to see in Wellington in New Zealand. I think given the amount of time we had, we adjusted pretty well. So I am quite happy, [it was a] decent performance.
"Slowly and gradually you will see all the youngsters learning, especially about the importance of the middle overs, because that is where most of the cricket is played - right from the 15th-20th over, onwards till the 40th over."
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo