In front of a capacity local crowd who had come to cheer Sri Lanka's first series victory for 16 months and with his captaincy attracting increasing criticism, Indian captain Sourav Ganguly finally cast off the shackles of poor form to guide his side to a convincing seven-wicket victory at Asgiriya International Stadium in Kandy on Saturday.

Chasing 264 for victory, India had started the day on 55 for one needing 209 more, but Sri Lanka still started favourites. India's injury ravaged side's highest score of the series had been the 232 they scored in the first innings here and, on a fourth day pitch, the wiles of Muralitharan looked an insurmountable challenge.

India, however, won the with ease thanks to a masterful 75 from number three batsman Rahul Dravid and an unbeaten 98 from Ganguly, who only failed to reach his century when rookie Mohammad Kaif had the impudence to flick the winning boundary.

Indeed, it was a crucial third wicket stand of 91 between Dravid and Ganguly that paved the way for Ganguly's triumph. Sadogoppan Ramesh's dismissal, which ended a stubborn 61-run second wicket partnership, had put Sri Lanka back in the box seat, but Dravid and Ganguly used all of their experience to blunt the major threat of local hero Muttiah Muralitharan.

Prior to his match-winning half-century this afternoon Ganguly had failed to reach fifty in 13 consecutive innings. And a Test average of just 24.65 as captain meant that critics were openly questioning whether he could lead the side and perform with the bat. This was his highest score since the 125 he scored against New Zealand 18 months ago and only his third half century as captain.

Ganguly was assisted by Sri Lanka's jittery fielders, who missed three separate chances. He was dropped straight after lunch by a diving Muralitharan at backward point when on 26, then at short leg when an attempted pull ballooned up in the air yards away from Hashan Tillakaratne and, finally, by Russel Arnold at second slip when he had scored 63.

However, after his third slice of luck, with India on 218 for three, Ganguly started to bat serenely and hurried the match to a close. Dilhara Fernando was flashed through the covers and clipped over mid on, whilst Muralitharan was disdainfully lofted straight down the ground.

Sri Lanka's bowlers had failed to bowl with the same vigour, nor extract the same degree of movement, that Zaheer Khan and Venkatesh Prasad had produced on Friday, when they had bowled out Sri Lanka for 221 in the second innings to setup the possibility of an Indian victory today.

Chaminda Vaas failed to swing the older ball like he had swung the new ball yesterday evening and, apart from an occasional dangerous delivery from Fernando, the other seamers looked innocuous. Worse, they failed to maintain a tight line and length, offering the Indian batsmen plenty of scoring opportunities.

Muralitharan was by far the most threatening weapon at the disposal of skipper Jayasuriya, but he was played expertly by Dravid and Ganguly, who punished him harshly whenever he erred. He proved unusually expensive, conceding 96 runs in his 25 overs.

Unlike his teammates in Galle, Dravid clearly had a game plan against Sri Lanka's star bowler. He was particularly severe on the short ball and cut Muralitharan for three fours in the off-spinner's first eight over spell of the day. To the good length balls he reached out of his crease and outside the line of stump, from where he either played with soft hands or padded away.

Sri Lanka did not deserve much luck, but were unfortunate in the morning when Dravid was deceived by Muralitharan's wonderfully disguised straighter ball and adjudged not out by umpire Tyronne Wijewardene when he had made just 29.

India scored 96 runs for the loss of just one wicket in the morning session and then stepped on the gas after the interval, when they scored the remaining 113 runs in just 27.4 overs.

When Dravid was finally caught at silly point off Muralitharan, India were 194 for three and a solemn crowd were suddenly roused. They gave their team one final cheer, but when Ganguly was then dropped twice, they realised that it wasn't going to be their day and they slowly filtered out of the stadium.

Sri Lanka have now lost their last three Tests in Kandy in the last 13-months and seven out of the 11 that have played here. When they lost to England in March in similar circumstances they were then routed at the Sinhalese Sports Club. Suddenly, they are the team with a point to prove.