An air of inevitability

With temperatures steadily dropping in India's capital city - Tuesday night was a six-year low 3.3 degrees Celsius - the Test match blew more cold than hot for most of the fourth day before Anil Kumble breathed fire, warming the hearts of 25,000 vociferous Indians in the stands. India had been on the ascendancy when the third day ended, with a lead of 297, already in excess of the highest target ever chased at the Kotla. Today, they spent the briefest period consolidating, lost Sourav Ganguly, and in an efficient yet exciting manner, blasted along to 375 through Yuvraj Singh and Mahendra Dhoni, leaving Sri Lanka with 436 to win.
There was an air of the inevitable about the day. Sri Lanka's bowlers could extract nothing out of the fourth day pitch. The odd ball kept low, but with the grass that covered the centre of the pitch dying, the bounce went with it. There was barely any movement off the pitch or in the air for the medium pacers, and apart from Muttiah Muralitharan, who anyway turns the ball irrespective of the surface, the Sri Lankan attack lacked penetration.

A good measure of just how difficult Sri Lanka found the going, was the fact that Murali went wicketless for 33 overs, and conceded 100 runs, before tasting his first success. India had already reached 271 when the overnight partnership of Yuvraj and Ganguly was separated. Then came a passage of play that would have caused the strongest shoulders to droop.

Dhoni walked out to bat in ODI-like conditions - and even switched from helmet to light blue ODI cap - and drove India's point home. With two sixes, both hit down the ground in the V from long-on to long-off, and five fours, he limed 51 off as many balls. At the other end, Yuvraj had played an uncharacteristic innings. When the day began he was tentative against spin, especially Murali, who beat the bat more than once. To Yuvraj's credit, though, he treated each instance of being foxed with the disdain Casanova reserved for rejection, and batted on regardless. All along, he played his strokes, crunching some assertive drives into the off side, only to see them brilliantly stopped at point or cover. With not enough value for big strokes, he settled in, kept the ball along the ground, and allowed Dhoni, who had no such compunctions, hammer the bowling. Hammer he did, till Sri Lanka were left with no chance of winning the Test.

Then it was India's turn to work hard on a sluggish pitch. Irfan Pathan prised out Avishka Gunawardene, who looks terribly out of place in Test cricket before a long period of stodgy batting from Marvan Atapattu and Kumar Sangakkara ate up almost one-and-a-half hours. With spin not doing the job, and the ball old enough, Ajit Agarkar induced an edge with a reverse-swinging delivery. Kumble changed ends, had Atapattu caught and bowled, skewered Malinga Bandara, the nightwatchman, a trifle unlucky to be given out lbw off the edge, and Harbhajan capped the day with the wicket of Thilan Saraweera, who played the most irresponsible drive in the last over, only to be caught at slip. At 123 for 5, Sri Lanka have big, big problems.

And India's selectors, who meet tomorrow to pick the squad for the third Test, are left with a bit of a headache through Yuvraj's unbeaten 77. When the team management picks the playing XI for the third Test, with Virender Sehwag fit once again, they have a tough job on their hands. It's hard to see them leaving Ganguly out of the eleven. Then again, till yesterday, it was very hard to imagine Irfan Pathan opening the batting in a Test match.