Finally we have a close game this Australian summer. Not a nailbiter, but certainly the closest international of the summer. It is little surprise that it has come between two old acquaintances that take attrition to a new level whenever they come up against each other. Interestingly, and surely there will be more than a few relieved by it, this was the first game between India and Sri Lanka since their World Cup final more than 10 months ago.
While it was good to watch a close contest, the reduction in intensity and quality from the games that Australia have played in was obvious. The Sri Lanka batsmen were rusty, and their India counterparts gifted wickets generously. The second ball Virender Sehwag faced today was a length ball bowled at around 130kph, and he duly smashed it for four. He has spent the whole summer in a futile wait for one such ball.
There was something missing tonight, and while it might sound a little harsh on the two teams, that missing thing was excellence.
India contributed to making the game more interesting. Virender Sehwag, Suresh Raina and MS Dhoni fell to shots they were not in a good position to execute. Four of India's six wickets fell to poorly executed aerial hits with the team under no undue pressure. The fifth, that of Virat Kohli, was a brain freeze. Kohli was cramping, and he had seen two other batsmen play irresponsibly to get out. Then he too went for a single he would have struggled to make even when fully fit.
MS Dhoni, though, said the intensity was not lacking. "Maybe because there weren't 280 runs on the board or because the match didn't go too close," Dhoni said of why people may have got the impression the match was low on energy. "At times it does look like that but I don't think that was the case. We had our own problems to deal with, like ensuring Praveen [Kumar, who began with a poor first over] got into his rhythm and bowled his full quota of 10 overs. I don't think the intensity was lacking at any point."
Sri Lanka's strategy did not work that well. They must have seen India struggle against the Australia quicks all summer, and came into the game with three fast bowlers and two medium-pace bowling allrounders. They promoted Thisara Perera to take advantage of the batting Powerplay, but that flopped too, and they ended up with 23 runs for the loss of two wickets in that crucial spell of play.
Amid all this, though, R Ashwin raised his game. He has not had a great tour of Australia, and has struggled to bowl enough good deliveries in a spell. Tonight he bowled six overs in the Powerplays, and three in the last 10. The odd short ball that kept getting punished against Australia was missing. His first over was a maiden, after which the pressure built. A wicket - Kumar Sangakkara's - came, and the level of India's fielding, which was beginning to drop, lifted again.
When he came back into the attack, Ashwin dismissed an out-of-touch Mahela Jayawardene in the first over of the batting Powerplay. The bigger wicket was Dinesh Chandimal, who was well set on 64. With perhaps his best piece of bowling of the tour, Ashwin beat Chandimal in the flight and had him stumped after the ball spun away.
Jayawardene would have loved to have had Ashwin in his side. At least he would not have been left with an all-seam attack. "We felt that the pitch was such that four seamers would probably do the job for us," he said. "Picking up wickets is very crucial against India, and we tried to do that. Ashwin bowled really well, but he is Ashwin." It was the first time in the last month and a half that Ashwin was spoken of with such deference.
Sri Lanka would have expected Lasith Malinga to be as impactful with the ball, but he had an off day. The yorkers did not come out right and he did not swing the ball much either. Even when India were throwing wickets away, Sri Lanka could not make things happen. Ashwin the batsman calmly saw India through, displaying once again the composure that has shone through for him on this tour. With he and Ravindra Jadeja putting together a partnership to steady a wobbling India, Sri Lanka did not look like a side that had taken four quick wickets and were sensing a win out of nowhere.
Perhaps Sri Lanka are yet to get used to the conditions. Perhaps India have been under the pump from Australia for too long, and could not play freely. The end product was an interesting match that ebbed and flowed, but this tournament needs India and Sri Lanka at their best. If Australia are not checked, and the league stage becomes a shootout between the two touring teams to decide the second finalist, it will seem very long.