They couldn't out Dinesh Chandimal at all*. He scored 162 of Sri Lanka's 367 in the second innings in Galle. That's 162 of the 275 scored since his arrival at the wicket, and 51 of the 65 the last three wickets added. He scored 50 more than the whole Indian side could manage in the chase, and did so at a strike rate of 96 despite having to turn down singles in the end on a low-scoring pitch where his side was at one time five down and 97 short of making India bat again.
If Chandimal did an Ian Botham from Headingley, Rangana Herath did a Bob Willis the next day to bowl India out. That Chandimal's innings resulted in the eighth-biggest victorious comeback from a first-innings deficit in the history of Test cricket made it even more special. This was, by all statistical measures, an incredible and rare innings. Look beyond the numbers and you'll see that it was a freak innings.
Not taking away credit from how well he played in the second half of the innings, but Chandimal was astonishingly lucky in the first half. Within the first 15 balls he faced, he could have been out at least twice. In fact with DRS he would have been given out on the first appeal - a clear top edge into the helmet and caught. And if the match was being played in England, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand or India, better frame rates would have cleared the doubt in the second appeal - a lob off the toe of silly point that may or may not have touched the ground.
Discount those two - the second one would have been an unlucky dismissal because he had middled the shot and kept it down - and you will still see an astonishing amount of luck involved.
At the start of his innings he swept indiscriminately. Top edge after top edge flew. He first edged it onto his helmet. When Virat Kohli plugged the gap at square leg, he gloved one trying to go finer. He top-edged again but was lucky it fell short of long leg. Once, he got too far inside the line of a legbreak, but was lucky the ball didn't turn. In the second innings of the next Test, a similar delivery turned and bowled him round his legs. Of the first nine sweeps Chandimal played, he lacked control in four. And yet he reached 30 off 33 balls.
"Test batting is a fickle pursuit. One mistake can send you back to brood over for days. A mistake every four balls? Forget about it"
While watching, for a long time you couldn't take this innings seriously because Chandimal kept making you believe he could get out any time. Not just the spinners, the quicks too drew edges from him that somehow kept landing safely. He was in control of only 57 of the first 76 balls he faced, during which period he scored 77 runs. From the other 19 - exactly one in four - he made 11.
Test batting is a fickle pursuit. It drives its practitioners to obsession and insanity because often it is just one mistake - sometimes a movement too big or as small as six inches - that can send them back to brood over for days. A mistake every four balls? Forget about it.
Here was a man making mistake after mistake but getting away with it. What would Kohli, who committed ten mistakes in the first 76 balls he faced for just one run, make of this? Shikhar Dhawan, the other centurion in the match, was not in control of only eight balls of the first 76 he faced.
What makes this innings rare is not that Chandimal got away with imperfect shots. Almost every batsman in a long innings does. It's that he did so for so long. In elite sport 76 balls is a long time in which to enjoy luck.
When I play with friends and colleagues in the neighbourhood clay-court-resembling field with a tennis ball, we run almost every time the ball touches the bat. The surface is uneven, there are ten matches going on simultaneously, and the skill and fitness levels of all the fielders aren't exactly of high standard. Luck plays a huge part here. On the rare occasions when we play cricket-ball matches in better-kept, dedicated fields, we are more careful: luck is taken out to some extent by improved conditions, and we know the opportunity is infrequent. In the neighbourhood matches, we are batting again in 40 minutes.
Test cricket is the rarest of rare. Players spend hours working in the nets to eliminate luck. Run-ups are marked, the width of stances is measured, thousands of catches are taken in the slips.
Batsmen, in particular, go to extremes. They read books, they spend nights hitting a ball hanging from a fan, they lean against walls while practising to make sure their heads don't fall away when in the middle. Painstakingly they work on their games so they don't have to rely on luck to miss the seaming ball or to keep down vicious offbreaks.
Then a team is pushed into a corner, one batsman plays a shot a minute, makes a mockery of all that goes into preparing to win Tests, and gets away with it.
Yet the way Chandimal tried to bat in Galle made cricketing sense. Before him, two of the best batsmen of his side had tried to resist the normal way. They did so for 20.4 overs, for 87 runs, but the pitch kept asking them questions. And when they made their mistakes, close-in fielders were in place to make them pay. Now Chandimal had for company a brittle tail and two out-of-form batsmen. He couldn't afford to hang about. He couldn't afford to let the spinners bowl where they wanted to. More importantly he had nothing to lose.
"Chandimal swept with a free mind, knowing he won't be hurting his team's already desperate chances any further if he failed while playing an audacious shot"
Attacking batsmen with nothing to lose, armed with bats that don't need a clean connection to clear, are dangerous. You can sympathise with modern fielding captains for trying to protect the boundaries when such batsmen are left with the tail.
Chandimal, in this case, swept with a free mind, knowing he won't be hurting his team's already desperate chances any further if he failed while playing an audacious shot. When the mind is not afraid of failure, it's funny how technique suddenly begins to fall into place. Except that in Chandimal's case it did so only in the second half of a long innings.
So what did Kohli and others really make of it? Sunil Gavaskar said at one point, "Luck favours the brave." Aakash Chopra saw the batsman pull off one of his reverse sweeps and said, "Chandimal can do things other people can't." Kohli, who might have had reason to grudge Chandimal his undue share of luck, chose to overlook it, especially the umpiring luck. "I don't want to speak about things that we cannot control," he said. "We kept bowling in the right areas and their batsmen took calculated risks, and some risks that had some chances came off. Credit to them, they were able to think clearly."
The assessment by the three - batsmen all, and thus well aware of the fickleness of their original occupations and the importance of runs when not playing well - shows they know runs are the currency they deal in, and that cricket matches are won by runs and wickets and not control percentages on ESPNcricinfo's scorecard. They work hard to eliminate luck from the game, they try to not think or talk about it lest they be seen as unsporting, or lest they forget skill and preparation is more important than luck, but they are all mindful of it.
Over the possible five days of a Test, which is a thorough examination of a team's skill, fitness and acumen, you would expect luck - and we are not talking the toss here - to be negated. The relative absence of luck gives the format an edge over the shorter ones. Still, there are rare occasions - such as this - when a side has nothing to lose and enjoys good fortune for a more than considerable period. What happens out in the middle is not always fair, but it is always correct. This page confirms it.
* Like they couldn't out Gavaskar, as per the "Gavaskar Calypso" by Lord Relator