<
>

India rusty but Sri Lanka shining

There are two things batsmen have to do in conditions such as these, and at a ground such as Dambulla, to ensure that they build a big total. One, they need to do nothing rash at the start of their innings, and just settle down till they're comfortable with the pace of the pitch. Two, they need to capitalise on their starts, take advantage of the size of the ground to take lots of ones and twos, and take few risks until the end. Sri Lanka got part one right against the United Arab Emirates, but not part two - a number of batsmen got starts, but only Avishka Gunawardene kicked on. Today, against India, they got both parts right, as their Nos. 2 to 5 made 49, 50, 57 and 58 not out, helping their side to an excellent score, in these conditions, of 282.
India, however, followed none of these dictums. The top four all got out either playing a needless stroke or looking for a needless run, and though Rahul Dravid led a gritty fightback, it was too late. Dravid, with 104 off 93 in the first game and 82 off 96 today, emphasised what a brilliant batsman he has become in the middle and late overs. Many readers were appalled when Dravid's name turned up in a Rest of the World one-day team that our staff put together to play Australia next year. But consider this: since he shifted to Nos. 5 or 6 in the order, in the Natwest Trophy in 2002, he has averaged 47 over 60 matches, and has finished matches for India with an efficiency that evokes the memory of Michael Bevan. Anyone who has watched India in action over the last two years would probably agree: Dravid is worth a place in that XI as a batsman alone.

Dravid has been the only Indian batsman in this tournament who has shown himself to be both comfortable and patient - the rest of India's batsmen have been rusty, and over-eager to smash their way into form. The lack of match practice also showed in India's bowling - as many as 27 extras were conceded in the Sri Lankan innings.

This lukewarm start to the season should not worry them too much - Lance Armstrong wasn't the hottest cyclist in the world in June, and Iban Mayo was tipped to challenge him strongly for the Tour de France. But Armstrong timed his season well, peaked when he needed to, and Mayo is, at the time of writing, almost 45 minutes behind Armstrong. When India look at the schedule of the season that has just begun for them, the Asia Cup is not such a big prize. The ICC Champions Trophy is more important, as are the series against Australia and South Africa. The Asia Cup and the series against Bangladesh, before and after, are just a warm-up and a cool-down. (That doesn't mean, of course, that India can afford to be complacent, and let their season drift to a bad start.)

Irfan Pathan and Lakshmipathy Balaji's lack of consistency won't worry them too much. Both men were sharp, got the ball to swing, and line and length will no doubt fall into place in time for matches of greater consequence than this one. But Zaheer Khan's performance today will be a cause for bother. Against UAE, he charged to the crease like a man possessed; today, he had a ghostly air around him. He jogged rather than ran to the crease, bowled without fire, and appeared listless. Was there some niggle he was hiding? Is he not fully fit yet? Zaheer will be a crucial cog of the Indian machine, especially against Australia and South Africa, and if he needs more time to recuperate, he should get it.

One lacuna in the Indian team selection, that had been mentioned by us in our tournament preview, was that they did not have a back-up batsman. The Indian selectors picked Parthiv Patel to keep wicket; the team management always intended Dravid to do so. The result was that if one of the seven batsmen got injured, as VVS Laxman did before this game, Patel, or an extra bowler, would have to play, and the Indians would have a batsman less than Sourav Ganguly or John Wright would have liked. Well, they were certainly a batsman less today, and the selectorial mistake has been shown up.

The Sri Lankan batting was excellent, as it often is at home. Avishka Gunawardene affirmed that the maturity and responsibility he displayed in yesterday's match was not an aberration. It is a fundamental change in attitude for a batsman whose Afridi-esque belligerance has cost him, in the past, a regular place in the Sri Lankan one-day side. Today's 49, and yesterday's 73, will please his selectors no end, as it gives them yet another middle-order option.

They already have some good men in there. Mahela Jayawardene played a lovely cameo of 26 yesterday, with late-cuts and dabs and tickles full of art and finesse. He played a similar innings today, batting with an innovativeness and audacity that would have had Javed Miandad hopping in delight. Over the years, his talent has induced gasps of wonder, while his inconsistency, especially abroad, has caused moans of dismay. Perhaps, as my colleague S Rajesh suggested in The Numbers Game recently, his best years lie ahead of him.

Sri Lanka showed in this game that in any tournament in their own country, they are the favourites. It is a wake-up call for India, for the ICC ODI table is affected by every game in this tournament, and teams 2 to 8 are so close together that a sequence of wins or losses could take a team clear at No. 2 or down to No. 8. For the World Cup finalist, there is pride to play for, and many points to prove, even if they are playing a few one-dayers too many. These two teams will play each other at least once, and maybe twice, in this event. It, or they, should be closer than this one.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.