Samaraweera, Perera take Sri Lanka to second successive win
Rarely does a centurion get overshadowed in a match of middling scores. But though Thilan Samaraweera finished with an accomplished unbeaten 105, the headlines were stolen by Thissara Perera, who celebrated his third cap with a power-packed 15-ball 36. From needing 54 off 39 balls when he arrived at the crease, Sri Lanka romped home with two overs to spare, as India's quest for yorkers merely resulted in one too many no-balls and full tosses. Chanaka Welegedara's five-wicket haul had killed India's batting momentum at crucial times, and with the dew playing such a factor in the evening, 279 was not quite enough.
After taking Zaheer Khan through cover to get off the mark, Perera transformed the game in Ashish Nehra's seventh over. He had been India's best bowler, but Perera pierced the off-side cordon, flicked behind square and then nonchalantly hoicked the free hit for six in the same direction. Samaraweera got to his hundred straight after, but was then more than content to watch the fun from the other end.
Zaheer was then carved through the covers twice, as he made light of being struck in the ribs, and a meaty club through wide long-on finished off matters well ahead of time. Sri Lanka had been given a brisk start by the new opening pair of Upul Tharanga and Lahiru Thirimanne, the debutant who replaced Tillakaratne Dilshan, but once India conceded just 16 in the five overs of bowling Powerplay, the onus was very much on the old hands to see it home.
Tharanga had set the tone with a casual loft for four off Zaheer, and then two then took 16 from an over that also featured wides down the leg side. With runs leaking, MS Dhoni gave the ball to Sreesanth, only for Thirimanne to reveal glimpses of his potential with three cracking drives through the covers. It was too good to last though. In Sreesanth's next over, he got into a tangle trying to pull off the front foot and the ball ballooned to midwicket.
Soon after, Harbhajan Singh was introduced and Tharanga chipped his fourth ball straight back. But Samaraweera came in and wrested the initiative with deft cuts and a paddle for four. And with Kumar Sangakkara unafraid to come down the pitch and chip over the infield, the innings quickly revived. By then the towels were out, and the Indian focus was as much on keeping the ball dry as it was on taking the wickets needed to win the game.
Samaraweera was the primary aggressor, scooping Sreesanth for four in an over that cost 16, and Sri Lanka were cruising when Sangakkara, who had eased to 60, stepped out and lofted Harbhajan Singh straight to cover. Thilina Kandamby then top-edged a wild swipe to midwicket and when Suraj Randiv backed up too far, they were in trouble. Perera, though, ensured that India would get no reprieve.
Earlier, Yuvraj Singh had marked his return to the XI with 74 from 84 balls, while Dhoni, Suresh Raina and Ravindra Jadeja all contributed decent cameos after Virender Sehwag had played a typically effervescent hand. He cruised to 47 from 30 balls before playing too early at one bowled with fingers rolled across the seam from round the wicket, and after his exit, India had to build steadily on a surface where the ball didn't always come on to the bat.
Sehwag had announced his intentions from the outset, off-driving Welegedara for four, but there was an early setback for the Indians as he sneaked a yorker underneath Gautam Gambhir's bat and on to the base of leg stump. With Sehwag taking Suranga Lakmal for three fours in an over, and Virat Kohli playing a lovely straight drive, the 50 of the innings came in just the seventh over. The game changed, though, in the space of two eventful overs from Welegedara.
Sehwag had scythed two off-side fours and been caught behind off a no-ball by the time Kohli tried too cute a deflection to a ball pitched outside off stump. Having conceded 18 in that over, Welegedara came back in the next to have Sehwag caught at mid-off by Thirimanne. India had taken 76 from the first Powerplay, but only 13 came from the bowling one as the bowlers kept a leash on the new batsmen. Both Yuvraj and Dhoni clipped boundaries through point, but with Randiv getting pretty sharp turn, and Kandamby filling in with part-time spin, the runs were no longer coming at Sehwag pace.
When Muthumudalige Pushpakumara went off injured after a dive in the outfield, Sangakkara had to turn to his occasional bowlers, and Yuvraj quickly cashed in, pulling Samaraweera for four and then heaving Kandamby for two consecutive sixes to reach his half-century. At that point, Perara, deputising for Chamara Silva, was called on, and Dhoni's attempt to force the issue only found Sangakkara's gloves. Soon after, he induced a miscued pull from Yuvraj, and by the time the batting Powerplay was taken after 43 overs, there were only 225 on the board.
They took 14 from the first of those overs, bowled by Welegedara, but with Jadeja going four-six-four-four against Thilan Thushara, the innings finally had some energy. But back came Sri Lanka again, with Welegedara castling Raina and Zaheer, and Harbhajan playing a hideous stroke to point. By the time Jadeja holed out in the final over, all hopes of 300 had long since disappeared, leaving Sri Lanka with a chase that they timed to perfection.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo