Half-centuries from Gautam Gambhir, Suresh Raina and Mahendra Singh Dhoni outdid a superlative century from Sanath Jayasuriya as India successfully chased the highest total in a day game in Dambulla. The pursuit never got out of hand for India, despite the early fall of Sachin Tendulkar. Once Gambhir and Raina got going, the asking-rate went above five only towards the last ten overs.
India got vital contributions from three batsmen, and were disciplined in the field. Sri Lanka relied on a spectacular Jayasuriya alone for their runs, and dropped both Gambhir and Raina in the initial stages of their innings.
Both the chances came in a frenetic first Powerplay of India's innings, after Kumar Dharmasena erroneously sent Tendulkar on his way as his first umpiring victim, lbw off a ball that pitched outside leg. In the over following that dismissal, Nuwan Kulasekara came up with an athletic effort to catch a low leading edge from Gambhir off his own bowling. But after various replays Gambhir benefited from lack of sufficient evidence, although the take could well have been clean.
In the next over Raina cut Thilan Thushara straight to Tillakaratne Dilshan at point and survived. Insult was added to injury in the next over, when Raina unleashed two delightful straight drives and a lofted six off Kulasekara. Two overs later, Gambhir edged Farveez Maharoof, but Mahela Jayawardene failed to hold on to a high chance.
Both went on to hurt Sri Lanka - Raina was 6 when dropped, and Gambhir 11. On a slow track, in hot and humid conditions, India needed a quick start, and that's what they provided. The chances notwithstanding, they took India to 54 in the first 10 overs. After that they settled down. Gambhir took the aggressor's role, often stepping out to medium-pacers and looking to go over extra cover. He also showed cheek when he upper-cut a Thilan Thushara bouncer over slips.
When the two fell within 11 runs of each other, Dhoni was there to guide India through to the target. He negated the threat of Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis by playing them extremely late, often taking the ball virtually out of Kumar Sangakkara's gloves and placing it. His first scoring shot was a slice from in front of stumps, guiding it past the wicketkeeper for four. The slow pitch didn't help the spinners either.
The outstanding feature of Dhoni's knock was not the power, but the placement: two of his five boundaries came after he had ensured India would win. He nudged and patted his way to 27 singles and seven twos. True to his image, he stayed unbeaten. How Jayasuriya would have wished that somebody in the Sri Lankan batting line-up followed up on his effort, like Dhoni did after Gambhir and Raina's dismissals. That Jayasuriya played a different game from his team-mates was evident: when he got out in the 40th over he had scored 107 in 114 balls, while the rest had managed 64 in 122 deliveries.
Jayasuriya's innings came on the 212th day of his 40th year, making him the oldest centurion in ODIs. He did owe the team a big performance, however, after being implicated in the first over run-out of Dilshan. Jayasuriya responded to Dilshan's call but stopped after taking two steps, and with Sri Lanka's in-form batsman out of the equation, what followed was an asphyxiating opening spell by Zaheer Khan. But Jayasuriya targeted Munaf Patel from the other end. He took at least one boundary - choosing to go over covers - in the first four of Munaf's overs, not letting the scoring stagnate.
But the runs hardly came from the other end. By the time spin was introduced, in the 16th over, Sangakkara had scored 18 in 47 deliveries and Jayasuriya 38 in 41. With spin came further shackles, and the slow nature of the pitch made boundary-hitting all the more difficult. In demanding conditions, Jayasuriya showed he was supremely fit at his age - running 18 twos, six of them for Sangakakara and four of those back-to-back. He cramped up, kneeled down between deliveries to recover, but the short cut was not to be taken.
He broke the ten-over boundary-less spell, hitting Pragyan Ojha onto the sightscreen, and followed it up with a pulled four off Yusuf Pathan in the next over. But he lost Sangakkara at a stage when one of the two could have gone for an all-out assault. Jayasuriya himself fell at an inopportune time, the second over of the batting Powerplay, but he had lost all his energy by then and lobbed a slower full toss to mid-off. The batting bar was lowered once again, as Zaheer and Ishant Sharma bowled superbly in the final overs. They used the change of pace to good effect, and Zaheer also managed some late swing. Mahela Jayawardene's struggle continued, and only 82 runs were scored in the final 12 overs.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo