India must renew focus with finish line in sight
And so here we are. After three whirlwind weeks of the bowlers having dictated play even as the batsmen have tried to tap into their inner technicians, India are seven wickets away from a series victory in Sri Lanka. Yes, yes, after 22 years. The last time India won a series in Sri Lanka, Amit Mishra was in primary school and KL Rahul still wore diapers. Never mind the time span, if the Indians pull it off at the SSC it could, keeping in mind the Colombo temperatures, serve as a soothing ice pack to the heated anxiety over India's abilities on foreign soil. Their last away series victory was four years ago in the West Indies, after which their reputation as travellers has been repeatedly either dented, battered or bruised. To Indian cricket, this normal Colombo Tuesday offers almost too big an occasion.
The very idea of it made Rohit Sharma smile through his rather combative and lively media interaction. "Yeah one more job and we are through." The seven wickets will have to be treated as a job, a task, in a manner that is more methodical and clinical rather than being an emotional surge. India will have to play it like they did the first two sessions on day four, rather than the last. These first two sessions at the SSC on Monday were highly disciplined and calculatedly paced. The last wound down into a slightly unhinged final 90 minutes which had India's most experienced cricketer in the XI lose his rag and strike himself over the head. It made their captain go into crazy-eyes mode every time a wicket fell and the close-in fielders crowd the batsmen as if they were auditioning for a skit titled "How to give match referees twitchy fingers".
Good thing that cups of tea were had by both teams and everyone went home to separate hotel rooms. This is not the time for emotion. Emotion must be put on hold until after the seven wickets - if all things go to plan, that is - are taken on Tuesday. After that Virat Kohli and his team are allowed flash floods of tears. The Indians have taught themselves how to play the control game - that is controlling both themselves and the play - and have some experience in it. At the P Sara, pushing for a series-levelling win, India needed eight wickets on the final day with the hosts chasing a rather impossible 413. Rohit remembered it well. "I guess we will just have to come out tomorrow and have to, you know, do what we did in P Sara. In the same situation they were three down [72 for 2 going into the final day] and we had very similar target there as well."
In hindsight, Monday could possibly serve as the day that sealed the series for India. What they did through a clutch of partnerships was to push the Sri Lankans to a position where it would require the most inspiring batsmanship from the home team - currently in a deep batting funk - to turn the Test around. "Batting on the fifth day and having a target of 380-plus is never easy for any opposition," Rohit said.
It is the manner in which India batted on the fourth day that helped them claw back from a nervy 21 for 3 to a lead which grew from sizeable to what, at stumps, looked monstrously impossible. That it came once again with the prized top order already lopped off, and that it was steered at first to safety and then to strength by a batsman as edgy and incendiary as Rohit, was delicious irony in itself. Rohit's dissection of the Indian innings was as careful as his batting appears carefree. The idea, he said, was to be cautious in the first half an hour of the day and then make a move later. The seamers, who have picked up most of the wickets in this Test, had to bear most of work load. "I'm sure they were also tired, they bowled so many overs," Rohit said. "So the first 20-25 minutes, we didn't get much runs but once we got enough time in the middle we started playing our shots."
After the Indians had come into the day with a lead of 132, the plan, according to Rohit, revolved around micro partnerships, "Every small little partnership on this wicket is crucial. There is something for the bowlers throughout the day. If you put the ball in the right areas, something is happening. We were not looking at getting too far ahead, like a 100-run stand or 200-run stand… It's not a high scoring ground."
India's lead stretched with the early efforts - Rohit and Kohli's 57 for the fourth wicket scored at three and a half an over was followed by Stuart Binny walking in and munching into the bowling with 49 off 62. He was the main man, scoring 36 of the 54 runs in his fifth-wicket partnership with Rohit, those runs coming at 5.14 per over. Binny displayed his intentions early, slashing Nuwan Pradeep over the slips and punching Dhammika Prasad over point. That show of aggression was important, Rohit said. "It was really important at that point of time and we wanted to capitalise as the bowlers were tired. We did that really well and once I got out, Naman [Ojha] and Stuart carried on for a bit and Ashwin and Mishra then did. Lower-order contribution are really important in Test cricket. We've always spoken about it and I'm glad that eventually it's happening now."
Going into Tuesday, it is a pitch that still has much life, it is a situation where India have the upper hand. When the bowlers walk out onto the field, they will be best served by the advice most coaches would give them. Think about what they want to do with every ball they are about to bowl. Without emotion, with a clear mind. Head not heart. Head for as many hours as needed. Heart for later. And if all goes well, it will be one for the ages.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo