On the day when Indian wrestler Sushil Kumar and boxer Vijender Kumar provided unanticipated boosts to the country's Olympic campaign, India's one-day team tussled and tugged their way to a series-leveling victory in Dambulla. It started India's way emphatically through Zaheer Khan's enthralling opening spell, tilted Sri Lanka's way when India slipped to 75 for 5, and was finished authoritatively by two middle-order batsmen with an appetite for a scrap.
One half of a match-winning stand of 60 in 15.5 overs, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, paid credit to the man who eventually took India home - debutant Subramaniam Badrinath. "Its good to have him," said Dhoni. "He was under pressure on debut, especially against Murali and Mendis, but he played them really well. He took up the challenge and responsibility and showed some character."
When Badrinath hit the winnings runs and jogged down the other end, pumping his right fist, the relief was clear for a batsman who voiced his disappointment at continually being overlooked for national selection. The closest that he came was when he was called up as a replacement for the injured Gautam Gambhir during the one-day series at home against Australia in October 2007. Having replaced Sachin Tendulkar in the current ODI team, it was an injury to Gambhir again which allowed him his debut, and he played with creditable determination to guide India home.
"He's very talented, and that's why he is here," said Dhoni. "He's been performing consistently over the years back home and on India A tours. It was reversing and turning a bit, and at one end we had a batsman [Badrinath] but the other end was open.
"It was Badrinath's first game and he had the pressure of scoring. That's what gives you confidence and the more experience you get the better. You don't need to play 100 games for that. Even 25 such games will give you much more experience. The more you are in these conditions, the more comfortable you will be in the future. It is good preparation, but it takes its toll too. You need to really concentrate."
Dhoni is no stranger to walking in under pressure and performing a rescue act, and he downplayed his contribution with a smile. "Well I'm losing some hair, but it is a pleasure to go out there under pressure and perform," he said. "That's what you're supposed to do at this level. People expect you to score and it's a privilege. A win is always good because the morale goes up and you start believing you can deal with pressure. Once you're square, you can look into the opponents' eyes and tell them that if we play good cricket, we can definitely beat you."
Zaheer, one of the unsung performers in the Tests, had taken immense pressure off the batsmen having to deal with Sri Lanka's spinners. A spate of injuries forced Dhoni to "bowl out of compulsion" despite a pitch that appeared good for batting by his assessment. In a fiery opening burst of pace and swing, Zaheer left Sri Lanka 10 for 3. In a tour so dominated by spin, it was refreshing to see pace make its presence felt.
"Zaheer has been consistent throughout," said Dhoni. "I've been playing for four years and I've seen him bowl like this. He has moved way ahead when it comes to his fielding as well. He's there more than 100%. He bowled really well in England too, and it's really good to have someone like him."
It has been a tough tour for India's bowlers. There was some assistance for the seam bowlers in the last two ODIs, but in the Tests it was an uphill struggle. Dhoni credited his bowlers for turning in an accomplished performance. "Not just Zaheer, the others did a great job," he said. "At times when a bowler doesn't get wickets people tend to say he's a weak bowler, but it is about the effort put in. You won't always have a good day. Unless you bowl in partnerships you won't get wickets. If Zaheer struck, Praveen Kumar's impact was also good. He bowled really well with the new ball."
The Indian captain also sounded a word of caution and believed that spin may come into play in the next three outings at Colombo. "It was a deceptive pitch, with something in it for the fast bowlers," he said. "In tough, hot and humid conditions, they bowled consistently, but I don't think they will get such conditions in the coming matches."
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo