Banking on Malinga

Poor old Marvan Atapattu. He lost his third toss of the series, this time on a featherbed pitch where the average first-innings score in the last three Tests is nearly 500, and smiled ruefully, accepting the latest setback to hit his team with the air of someone who knows the Gods are turned against him. But despite being beset by bad luck, Atapattu's team showed a steely spirit on the opening day at Ahmedabad, keeping alive hopes of a series-levelling virgin Test victory in India.

The selectors made Atapattu's job hard enough before the series by robbing him of two frontline batsmen, Sanath Jayasuriya and Russel Arnold, but his task was made even tougher when a virus also stole the good health of his two leading pace bowlers, Chaminda Vaas and Dilhara Fernando. Atapattu was left with a dangerously inexperienced bowling attack and it looked like Murali, nursing a strained thigh, would have to bowl all day.

The loss of Vaas, his ever reliable left-armer, was a hammer blow. Vaas, who claimed his 300th Test wicket in Delhi, had bowled beautifully in the opening two Tests. Moreover, aside from grabbing crucial breakthroughs, he provided the control that allows Murali to ratchet-up the pressure. Now Atapattu was left with Farveez Maharoof, who was clattered to all corners in the ODIs, and Lasith Malinga, Sri Lanka's unpredictable slinger. It could easily have turned into a nightmare.

But after understandably nervy starts, having being plunged into the fray without proper preparation, Malinga and Maharoof bowled magnificently, especially after the luncheon interval when Malinga toppled Virender Sehwag and the pair then clamped down on India's run rate, forcing VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar into their shells. While Malinga bristled with energy, forcing Tendulkar into the limbo and cracking Mahendra Dhoni on the helmet later on, Maharoof was the honest metronome, putting the ball in the corridor and starving the batters of scoring opportunities.

Malinga's performance begged the obvious question: should he have played in Delhi? Fernando was the safe pick, steadily growing in confidence after injury and now capable of bowling tight spells. But Malinga is capable of conjuring up wickets on the blandest of pitches. The only drawback is that he can haemorrhage runs at times, firing the ball down the leg-side. If Sri Lanka had a reliable fifth bowler amongst their batters, like Jayasuriya, then it would have been an easier gamble to take.

Malinga's other great strength is that his spirit is unquenchable. Some bowlers are broken with a couple of hits to the fence, but Malinga's heart is lion-sized and he'll never stop sprinting in for his team. He may run out of steam, like he appeared to do late in the day, but he'll never give you less that 100 per cent commitment. Maharoof, too, has some of the same inner steel and it showed today as India, after a breezy start, were not allowed a greedy run fest.

Murali, too, played his part, profiting from the pressure cooked up by Malinga and Maharoof by claiming Tendulkar's scalp for the third time in successive Tests. Crucially, the workload was shared around equitably meaning he was not left exhausted. Malinga Bandara, his spinning partner, twirled through 19 overs, just two less than Murali. He claimed the wicket of Mohammad Kaif too, albeit fortuitously with a long hop that was slapped straight to mid-wicket.

India at that stage, just before tea, were in disarray on 97 for 5. In the end the hosts clawed themselves back from the brink, also showing character, finishing the day on 247 for 6, but were it not for another dollop of misfortune Sri Lanka might even be batting by the close as Laxman, who marshalled the fight-back in partnerships with, first, Dhoni and then Irfan Pathan, was given a reprieve minutes after Kaif's departure. Sri Lanka's vociferous appeal for a bat-pad off Malinga suggested some wood and a clear edge was reconfirmed by television replays afterwards.

However, Sri Lanka cannot stew on their misfortune - India too, it must be remembered, suffered some bad luck as Rahul Dravid was forced out of the Test, missing his first game since 1996 - and must now return reinvigorated on Monday morning. The game is intriguingly poised. If you'd offered Sri Lanka an Indian score of 247 for 6 just after the toss they'd have surely taken it, but unless Laxman and Pathan are separated fast then the pendulum will soon swing back to India.