Match Analysis

India's will to win tested by searing conditions

On a steaming Colombo day, victory did not come easily to India. But the team kept its focus, intensity and clarity of thought going, and reaped the benefits

Ishant Sharma summed up this India's fighting spirit on the final day at the SSC  •  AFP

Ishant Sharma summed up this India's fighting spirit on the final day at the SSC  •  AFP

It was a sweltering afternoon in Colombo, the kind that is never understood unless it is experienced. Sweat drips everywhere, off fingers, arms, legs, off the forehead, stinging the eyes. It is heat of a kind that gets behind the eyes and as the sun continues to burn and beat down, the mind feels like it is being baked. That is what it was like under the roof of the media centre at the SSC, watching India push for victory - in the match, in the series, in the history books.
On a still, cruel afternoon, where a small crowd huddled under whatever shade they could find, waiting for something to happen, all that was heard was the claps of the Indian fielders and voices calling out in cricket's global lingo. "Come on, lads…" "One more wicket, boys, one more wicket...". Was that Stuart Binny? Or wicketkeeper Naman Ojha? Or Ajinkya Rahane?
The voices floated up over the ground as Umesh Yadav and R Ashwin tried to keep the Sri Lankan batsmen pegged down. They were bowling to captain Angelo Mathews, arguably the game's current Superman, and debutant wicketkeeper Kusal Perera, pocket-sized but with extra helpings of daring. Fifty overs completed, the partnership bustling along, the target of 386 shrinking, one boundary an over, suddenly 40 scored off ten. And still Ashwin whirling his arm over and over, tossing it up on occasions, bowling slightly quicker on others, Umesh hurling it down between 139 and 141 kph.
The first wicket of the final morning at the SSC had come quickly. In the fourth over, Umesh banged one in short to Kaushal Silva who tried to drag-pull it somewhere but it ballooned straight into the sky. New man Lahiru Thirimanne had already found himself with the match referee, but at this point no one cares about the match referee and what is about to happen on the disciplinary front. That is for afterwards.
Now, it's six wickets left. Kohli switches from Binny, who kept Thirimanne quiet, to Ashwin. He is the lead spinner but without a wicket in this match, only eight overs in the first innings. Ashwin would later say he had wanted to be a "good foil" for the seamers in the first innings.
"Thankfully they bundled them out and I didn't have much to do. But in the second innings I knew that winning a Test on the final day, there is that bit of responsibility attached to it. I wanted to take them." He does. Thirimanne is gone in his very first complete over of the day, trying to release pressure and create a shot against the spin. KL Rahul, centurion and leaver of balls, dropper of catches and snaffler of blinders, is at silly point. He has leapt up and bunted the leading edge into the air before the completing the catch. Half the Sri Lankan batting line-up is gone.
For a short while, it feels like a slice of India's victory at the P Sara, where, with eight wickets needed on the final morning, things had rushed along in fast-forward mode. Ashwin had raced through the batting like a long-distance runner on a sprint finish. But here at the SSC, it is drip, drip, drip. In keeping with the weather, in which bowlers feel as if they sweat out a mineral water bottle every over. Mathews and Kusal are turning the screws and starting to cut off the air for the Indian fans. It is at points like these that intentions can start to melt away, and the way ahead look a little hazy, impossible, mirage-like.
Ashwin and captain Kohli later sat next to each other at the media briefing, India Test shirts Nos. 271 and 269. That doubt of "what if", they said, was never going to happen. Regardless how long the partnership, Kohli said, "you have to sit there and think about how the game goes. The averages of people giving away chances in the number of overs. In Test cricket, on a fifth day, there will be hundred-run partnerships, that happens in international cricket. But you will have that one opportunity or that one chance to get someone out, and you have to make sure that you grab that."
Ashwin talked of the ball getting softer, not swinging for the fast bowlers anymore, the fact that resistance had been expected. "Even before the game, we had identified this as the phase where runs would go. We were always stacking it up for the second new ball to come, so we were really prepared to take the game as deep as possible."
Before the new ball, there was Ishant Sharma, who contained within himself his entire team's spirit on the final day of the series. At the tail end of the fourth day, he had gone loco with Dhammika Prasad and knew that the match referee would be sending him a love note about the same. His attention though was on matters at hand.
Ishant turned up at the start of every bowling spell on the final day looking like he was ready to tear up everything in front of him, the batting, the pitch, the stumps and then move over to the stands and take them down too. An hour after lunch, he was bowling back-of-a-length lifters which clocked 145, offering 139kph at the least in the 65th over of the day. He conceded the one boundary of his 19 overs on Monday evening. On Tuesday, he offered batsmen only hellfire and damnation.
On both sides of tea come the opportunities the Indians have spent two steamy hours waiting for. Kusal reverse-sweeping Ashwin to Rohit Sharma at point is followed by the arrival of the new ball. First over after tea, Mathews misses one full and straight and Ishant has his 200th Test wicket; he punches his fist into the air, shakes his head of hair, knowing that the Test is as good as won. As the Indians gather around Ishant, high-fiving, Kohli leaves their little knot and pats the departing Mathews on the back. An appreciation of Mathews' leadership and courage with the bat.
The two spinners are quickly put to work and the last three wickets slide quickly, within the next five overs. Amit Mishra's googly is far too arcane for Nuwan Pradeep to understand and the bowler is hugged by his captain for putting the final seal on the game. Pujara and Ishant are asked to lead the team off the field. Kohli is waving a stump at the support staff in the dressing room, pulling at his India t-shirt in what is his aggro-boy avatar. An instant later, he has his own private moment and everything sinks in. He is walking off looking down at the ground, shaking his head and giving the stump one final swish. It is done. From an afternoon of gloom in Galle to victory over the buckets of sweat at the SSC.
Kohli said afterwards that he had noticed a single significant change in this series, when compared to the team's long round of overseas travels since South Africa, 2013: "We have capitalised on the important moments in the game. We have done well to maintain our composure and do well in those moments, and that is why we have been able to win two Test matches after being 1-0 down. Just the way the guys have responded to situations, that has changed. It only shows the hunger of the guys in improving as cricketers and actually wanting to close out games of cricket rather than hesitating."
For almost an hour and a half after the presentation, the Indians sit around on the balcony of their dressing room, savouring the afterglow of victory and tossing over shirts, caps and other pieces of their kit to the ground staff on the floor below. No hell-raising noise or spraying of champagne. Just smiles, laughter and a few cans cracked open. If they knew of it, the Indians would surely have raised the great Sinhala toast that Sri Lankans offer each other. It would have been the most fitting of wishes for their future: jaya weva. May you win.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo