When inexperience and experience combined well
Never mind that Sri Lanka's win came in a tournament struggling to find a context and a meaning, but in the bigger picture, and with the World Cup near, this victory has a special significance. It got much closer than it should have, especially after Kumar Sangakkara and Thilan Samaraweera appeared to be in complete control, but a sweet aftertaste followed once they overcame the threat of choking.
Sri Lanka have, of late, been found wanting in pressure situations, especially against India. They come painfully close to the finish line but catch the yips and fall short. It happened in Rajkot and Cuttack during the ODI series in India recently, and during matches in Sri Lanka as well.
But with the World Cup in sight, what matters is that they are slowly beginning to find men who are soaking up the pressure and learning to deliver. Last time they won a close game was in Nagpur, when Angelo Matthews finished the game. Tonight Samaraweera, helped by a blinder from Thissara Perera, pushed them past the line. Just like in Nagpur, the finish was tighter than it should have been.
The choke started in the familiar manner with a soft dismissal. When Sangakkara slammed a wide delivery from Harbhajan Singh to cover, things began to look eerily familiar. Thilina Kandamby fell to a fatal slog sweep soon after and the required rate started to climb. The panic had definitely set in as Samaraweera went for some risky shots, dashed for dangerous singles and interestingly, kept delaying the batting Powerplay.
The build-up suggested that the Powerplay could be the make-or-break factor in the match. The field restrictions, which gives the team batting first an invitation to plunder runs, can turn into a catalyst for choking in close finishes. The batsmen, seeing the close-in fielders, think singles aren't possible and often get out with risky hitting over the field. Even tonight, Sri Lanka were nervy at the start of the five-over block requiring 56 from 42 balls to win. Did they take the Powerplay too late? Considering the havoc that it normally unleashes on teams lacking in confidence while chasing, did they take it a touch early?
Samaraweera backed away the first ball and was nearly run out attempting a non-existent single, but Ravindra Jadeja missed the stumps. Off the third ball, he again moved outside leg, looking for a big hit, and the ball went off his pad to MS Dhoni. More panic. Randiv charged across for a quick run but slipped while turning back, to be run out.
It was now all up to Samaraweera, or so one thought. Fortunately, for him and Sri Lanka, it wasn't the case. Perera, aged just 20 and two ODIs old, caned the bowlers for some big boundaries to lift the pressure off Samaraweera. India helped their cause with some tripe bowling in the end and Sri Lanka got home with two overs to spare.
Sangakkara said, "Thissara's inexperience and Samaraweera's experience really worked for us. We knew we had a chance if Thilan kept batting and Perera comes off. He [Perera] has got no fears, which is good to see. Sometimes it can happen that a bowling attack might get confused where to bowl when a new player you have not seen much of comes to bat in these situations."
Sangakkara was delighted with the win, which arrived after some close defeats in India. "We have six guys in the team with less than six games of experience," he said. "We have to trust the players and give them the opportunities and sometimes they surprise you with the ability. In all senses, it was a really important win."
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo