Inspired by a genius who raised his game when the occasion demanded, Sri Lanka overpowered India in their final league match at Port-of-Spain and stormed into the Super Eights. India suffered one of their most disappointing days in recent memory, muffing up a run-chase on a pitch posing no worries, and were all but ousted from the World Cup, in what is likely to be their worst campaign since 1979.
It wasn't as one-sided a contest as the scorecard suggests. The first half of the match was a cat-and-mouse battle that everyone expected, with neither team establishing their dominance. Sri Lanka scrapped out a competitive 254 and defended it with verve and skill. Muttiah Muralitharan towered over India's batsmen, bounding in from around the wicket and taunting them with offbreaks and doosras that were near unplayable. He was unstoppable on the field too and pulled off a full-length lunge to dismiss the in-form Sourav Ganguly, and killed Indian hopes once and for all with a good catch at long-off to get rid of Rahul Dravid.
Coming close on the heels of Bob Woolmer's tragic demise, India's exit will no doubt be a setback for the World Cup. Carrying the tags of 'commercial favourites', they will be the first to admit that they didn't deserve to go through, having been trumped by both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It was no doubt a spineless batting effort today but there is little one can do when confronted by a magician like Murali.
Half-centuries from Upul Tharanga and Chamara Silva had set Sri Lanka up but it was the Murali factor that proved too much for India. His first-ball topspinner that hoodwinked Mahendra Singh Dhoni summed up his influence. He fizzed one through and landed it on middle stump, Dhoni thought about the cut but could only watch in a daze as the ball crashed into his back pad. It was so plumb, and he seemed so embarrassed, that he walked instinctively. To see Dhoni walk before the bowler had completely gone up for the lbw appeal was to see the last whiff of hope evaporate.
Murali earlier removed the dangerous Virender Sehwag at a crucial juncture. Sehwag's solidity, and reading of the percentages, was reminiscent of the batsman in his prime. There was hardly any wild swinging outside off - barring one moment on 39, when Kumar Sangakkara couldn't latch on to a full-length dive off a fierce slash off Dilhara Fernando - but a game built on assessing the situation and the bowlers. Yet, in the 23rd over, Murali's third, he was tied up in knots. He first missed a doosra down the leg side, one that was called wide despite nearly knocking off leg stump, but was completely baffled by another that pitched on off and turned away, watching Mahela Jayawardene gobble up a catch at first slip.
If Sehwag's dismissal was the turning point, Yuvraj Singh's fatal run-out was probably the clincher. Taking off for a single where there was none, after Dravid had nudged behind square, was all it needed for Sri Lanka to pounce. Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar had fallen cheaply earlier - one to a poor stroke, another to an incisive delivery - and the run-chase was well and truly derailed. Dravid ploughed along amid the ruins, suffering a hamstring along the way and briefly lashing Lasith Malinga for four consecutive fours in an over, but that was nothing but a rage against the dying light. The contest was long over.
Sri Lanka's batting efforts were built around Tharanga and Silva. Sri Lanka didn't ride on their senior pros, who were bogged down and snaffled out, but relied on a 22-year-old to guide them past the early tension. Tharanga wasn't at his flowing best, understandably so considering the needle in this contest, but his half-century was the one that anchored the innings. He didn't endeavour anything out of the ordinary and had his lucky moments, against Ajit Agarkar's slower balls and Zaheer Khan's in-cutters. But he interspersed them with gorgeous drives.
His dismissal brought in a couple of hardworking batsmen - Silva was beaver-like in his approach, grinding out singles and improvising fours while Dilshan, always on the look-out for runs, provided support. Silva's third consecutive World Cup fifty formed the heart of the middle overs and his cheeky glides behind the wicket irritated the bowlers. Dilshan was the more forceful, backing away and forcing the ball through the off side. Both fell in quick succession but Russel Arnold and Chaminda Vaas, adding 38 in 23 deliveries, boosted the total beyond the 250 mark.
India's bowlers turned in an impressive performance, 27 extras notwithstanding. Agarkar and Munaf Patel were the best bowlers on view and would have ended with richer hauls with a dose of good fortune. Tendulkar surprised with his banana inswing and Ganguly chipped in with an important wicket. The tension that had built up over the last few days simmered right through the first 70 overs of the match, only for Murali to cut through it in his inimitable style. A banner that read "Murali-ed" probably got it just right.