The ghost of batting under the R Premadasa lights was almost buried tonight. Sachin Tendulkar's master class, an 86th international century close to his best, almost became a footnote on a night of punches and counter-punches. Sri Lanka knew being ultra-aggressive was the only way of going about this huge chase, and they counterattacked every time a wicket was lost. Thilina Kandamby, batting at No. 7, almost pulled off a heist against India for the second time in his short career, but the loss of early wickets had left him with too much to do.
Don't go by the 46-run margin. India's fielders and fast bowlers were rattled during the frenetic chase. It was their spinners, Harbhajan Singh, Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh, who saved them the embarrassment. They took critical wickets at critical points and Raina's dismissal of Chamara Kapugedera in the 43rd over, with 68 runs and the batting Powerplay to go, proved to be the decisive blow. A pumped-up Harbhajan then finished off what he started, dismissing the last three batsmen in a hurry. He had earlier taken two wickets in the eighth and 10th over of the innings to rein in an explosive start to the chase.
When Harbhajan came on for his first spell, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Sanath Jayasuriya had jolted the Indian team out of a dream afternoon. Sixty runs were scored in seven overs and all three fast bowlers were clueless. Harbhajan's first over was a masterpiece. With a slip and leg slip in place, and a strong on-side field, he invited Dilshan to take the risk and hit through the off side. Dilshan took the bait - he didn't have many choices - got one boundary through cover, and was bowled the next ball.
In his next over, Harbhajan got Mahela Jayawardene with a doosra, and India were on all-out attack. Three more bowlers took wickets in the first over of new spells, though failing to bring Sri Lanka's run-rate down, which was helped by Thilan Thushara's pinch-hitting. But after they lost the fifth wicket, Kumar Sangakkara and Kandamby settled in for longer innings.
Sangakkara was unfortunate when his bat slipped out of his hand and landed on the top of the stumps in the 28th over. With four wickets left, and 138 to get, it seemed over but Kandamby and Kapugedera had other ideas. They didn't panic, kept the singles and the odd boundaries coming, and were helped by sloppy fielding - India missed at least two run-outs and an easy catch.
With 80 required in the last 10 overs, five of which would be bowled under field restrictions, India relied on the spinners. Raina and Yuvraj gave nine runs in Nos. 41 and 42 and, in the 43rd, Raina got the ambitious shot out of Kapugedera, ending a 70-run stand in 15 overs. Harbhajan then came on to finish his third five-for in ODIs.
The beauty of the chase was that it overshadowed a classy knock by Tendulkar, who rolled back the years, and then some. He stroked, ran and yearned for runs like it was the 1990s, but unlike those days he didn't need to take any risks on the way to setting what looked like a total safe beyond doubt.
This was Tendulkar's ninth international century since May 2007, to go with seven scores in the 90s. Judging by this form, 100 international hundreds have become a distinct possibility. A measure of the bowlers' helplessness lay in the fact that the first time he hit a ball in the air was to reach his fifty, that too off a free hit. With Tendulkar batting the way he was, who needed aerial shots?
He shared valuable partnerships with Rahul Dravid, Dhoni and Yuvraj, especially crucial being the one with Dravid. Tendulkar and Dravid, walking out with 73 years and 762 ODI caps between them, took charge of what has looked a shaky batting line-up: their 95-run opening stand took them to No. 6 on the all-time partnership aggregates in ODIs.
Tendulkar you simply couldn't take your eye off. Albeit on a flat track, Tendulkar and Dravid were prepared to work hard in sapping conditions, their shirts turning to dark blue with sweat even before the shine went off the white ball.
Nuwan Kulasekera and Thilan Thushara didn't serve up loose half-volleys or long hops; Tendulkar had to work for every forceful shot. The first ball he faced he punched sweetly off his toes, wide of mid-off for three. In the fourth over, he took a similar delivery and wristed it wide of mid-on for three. We were on to something.
A string of lovely boundaries followed, the best being the punches through a tight cover ring, and the late flicks from off and middle stump to midwicket and cow corner. After Dravid's dismissal, Tendulkar added 110 with Dhoni, who kept the tempo up.
By then Tendulkar had started taking the odd chance, stepping out, making room, and hitting Jayasuriya and Mendis over extra cover. One such shot off Mendis, in the 29th over, took him into his 90s and serenely, with ones and twos, came the hundred. After the hundred came the cramps, and when Tendulkar opted for a runner we were reminded for the first time it was in fact the year 2009.
Dravid came back to run, but Tendulkar did most of the calling. The bowlers showed no mercy, Malinga bowling a mix of bouncers and yorkers. Tendulkar's response was to hit Mendis for a six inside-out and reverse-sweep two boundaries in three balls. After he got out in the 46th over, trying one reverse-sweep too many, Yuvraj's big hitting got India 42 runs, which also proved crucial in the end.