India fought back to level the series 1-1 with a three-wicket win but the victory was far from convincing as they made heavy weather of a modest target of 143. Zaheer Khan's dramatic opening spell, which sent Sri Lanka's top order reeling, was the highlight of the day as India restricted Sri Lanka to a score four less than what India made on Monday.
The contrast, however, was the manner in which victory was achieved. While Sri Lanka coasted home in the first ODI, India lost early wickets, grafted, lost few more, recovered, and later limped to the target. Mahendra Singh Dhoni kept a cool head and debutant S Badrinath showed maturity in supporting his captain when he came in with 68 needed.
India's batting in the first match forced a change of strategy, but the paucity of specialist openers and the fact that India were playing four medium-pacers forced Dhoni to "bowl out of compulsion" despite a pitch that appeared good for batting by his assessment. His decision in the end proved a masterstroke.
Zaheer's deliveries moved, sliced the batsmen in half, made run-scoring an arduous task and India's body language perked up with each wicket, reflecting their hunger to turn the tables after an embarrassing drubbing.
In his first over, Zaheer produced an inswinger to Kumar Sangakkara which clipped the top of off stump after the batsman played around the line of the ball. Mahela Jayawardene and Chamara Kapugedera both fell to edges behind the wicket off deliveries that landed on off stump and seamed away. Praveen proved a good foil for Zaheer maintaining pressure with the new ball, moving it in the air and cramping Sanath Jayasuriya. He dismissed Chamara Silva off a leading edge, before Zaheer sent back Jayasuriya lbw with a delivery that cut into the left-hander. The decision was shrouded in doubt as it appeared as if he was struck high on the pads.
Tillakaratne Dilshan joined Jayasuriya with the score on 11 for 4 but looked scratchy early on, failing to make contact with his pulls. His frustration showed as he swished the air with his bat. He eventually connected against a short ball from Irfan Pathan but was caught by Badrinath who ran in from deep midwicket and dived forward to take a low catch, leaving Sri Lanka in an even bigger mess at 44 for 6.
An unlikely revival came courtesy the pair of Thilan Thushara and Nuwan Kulasekara. Once the ball had gotten softer, run-scoring became easier. Thushara was the more adventurous of the pair, freeing his arms when offered width and brought up the fifty stand with a slash down to third man off Harbhajan Singh.
Just when it looked like India were letting them off the hook, Praveen returned for a new spell and broke the 74-run stand. Thushara tried to heave him across the line but didn't get the elevation to clear Kohli at deep midwicket and three balls later, Kulasekara chipped the same bowler to Badrinath at midwicket. Harbhajan mopped up the tail to with 11 overs to spare, giving India the ideal opportunity to stay alive in the series.
India were left to bat out a nervous five overs before lunch but the experimental opening pair of Pathan and Virat Kohli - India's 12th combination since January 2007 - failed to click. Sangakkara snaffled a sharp catch to his left to dismiss Pathan off Kulasekara and Raina followed soon after, trapped lbw to the same bowler.
Kohli was solid in defence and safely negotiated the several bouncers dished out to him, before fetching boundaries through the off side off Kulasekara. Yuvraj Singh found his groove with crisply-driven fours off Thushara, but not surprisingly, continued to be a sitting duck against Mendis, falling prey to the carrom ball. Kohli took his chances against Mendis, heaving him over midwicket but eventually fell to Thushara, punching one straight to short extra cover. Rohit Sharma was sent packing two balls later and Sri Lanka were back in the match.
It was an opportunity for Badrinath to impress after being on the fringes of national selection for a while and he didn't disappoint, negating the spinners by coming forward and smothering the turn while rotating the strike. The singles and twos never dried up - Dhoni in fact started scoring at over a run-a-ball - as India steadily edged ahead. Muralitharan bowled round the wicket, but the pair used their wrists well to work the ball in the vacant areas on the leg side.
India suffered a late hiccup with eight needed as Dhoni played all over a full delivery from Dilhara Fernando, before Mendis returned for one final scalp. Though India registered a comeback win, it did nothing to allay the blaring frailties in the batting line-up devoid of senior players.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a staff writer at Cricinfo