Sourav Ganguly returned to the team with a colourless knock that took him past 10,000 runs
© Getty Images|
Mahela Jayawardene scripted a miraculous back-from-the-dead victory for Sri Lanka in the fourth group match of the tri-series in Dambulla. After India's stop-start batting performance had set 221 for victory, Sri Lanka stumbled to 95 for 6, before Jayawardene, along with Upul Chandana, carried them to victory. India's lack of a credible fifth bowler did cost them dear, but nothing could detract from the calmness, intelligence, and above all, the spirit that the two men displayed throughout their matchwinning performance.
When Chandana joined Jayawardene in the middle, Sri Lanka would have been forgiven for wanting to throw in the towel and look towards their next game. Not these two. After seeing out a testing, economical spell from Ashish Nehra, the pair set upon Sourav Ganguly with relish, before taking apart Virender Sehwag with clinical precision. Harbhajan Singh suffered too, and by the time Rahul Dravid brought his quick men back, it was really too late. Jayawardene spanked his first half-century in 19 games, and Sri Lanka romped to the victory the Indians seemed to have taken for granted.
Sri Lanka couldn't have asked for a worse start. Already without Mr Experience, Sanath Jayasuriya, they were six-down shortly after the halfway mark. Upul Tharanga, 20 years old and showing nerves, gloved a short, sharp ball from Irfan Pathan to Mahendra Dhoni. Kumar Sangakkara and Atapattu then set about repairing the damage before the umpire, Tyron Wijewardene, intervened to bring a premature end to Sangakkara's innings.
Atapattu and Jayawardene engaged in a brisk stand of 42 in eight overs, before Atapattu decided the time was ripe to commit hara kiri. He was obviously not chastened by an earlier mix-up with Mahela Jayawardene, and attempted to take on Suresh Raina's arm. Raina had caused a run-out in each for his last two games, and he duly made it three out of three.
Tillakaratne Dilshan, Sri Lanka's bowling hero from earlier in the day, was late in connecting with an away-swinger from Ashish Nehra and edged to the keeper (88 for 4), and the Indians were beginning to smell blood. Arnold missed Nehra's line and was trapped in front, to make it 94 for 5. Dilhara Lokuhettige was snapped up by Harbhajan shortly thereafter. With the bowlers to follow, and no Jayasuriya to guide the flock home, Sri Lanka were looking out for the count.
What followed was a 126-run partnership between Jayawardene, whose unbeaten 94 was his highest score in four years, and Chandana, who matched his more accomplished partner in strokeplay, poise and heart. Chandana ended on 44 not out, an innings richly deserving accolades for the way he set about dissecting, and then, destroying the Indian bowling. The only Indian bowler to come out unscathed was Nehra, whose parsimonious ten-over spell included two wickets. But the inability to defeat a Sri Lankan outfit missing Jayasuriya, Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan after having them down on the mat for most of the game will haunt Dravid and his men for days to come.
Dilshan took four wickets, as Sri Lanka stifled India's famed batting line-up earlier in the afternoon. Ganguly scored a stodgy half-century, and in the process stumbled past 10,000 ODI runs
, but India had Pathan's entertaining cameo to thank in an innings where mediocre batting clashed with fairly ordinary bowling, and the bowling came out on top.
While most of the hype centred around the return of Ganguly and VVS Laxman, Sri Lankan fans were apprehensive as to what a bowling attack without the rested Muralitharan (372 one-day wickets), the injured Vaas (326 ODI victims) and Jayasuriya (267) would fare against a batting machine like India's.
Their fears were laid to rest by the Sri Lanka's back up spinners - Dilshan and Chandana, who bowled with control, variation and guile, effectively suffocating the Indian middle order. Dilshan finished with 4 for 29 off his quota of 10 overs, his haul including scalps of the pedigree of Dravid, Laxman and Dhoni. Marvan Atapattu must have been left ruing his decision not to introduce him earlier. Chandana, like Dilshan, bowled a series of well-flighted, well-controlled deliveries and picked up the scalp of Ganguly.
Ganguly passed 10,000 one-day runs with little of the fluency that had earned him his previous 9967, the cornerstone of a team batting performance that was distinctly off-colour. He and Sehwag occupied the crease for the first 15 overs, but never made a convincing case for why they should be there. Sehwag, with a string of poor scores behind him, was introspective; Ganguly, with much to prove upon his return, couldn't middle the ball consistently. Sehwag's tentative innings ended when he dragged the debutant Pradeep Jayaprakashdaran on to the stumps, to make it 67 for 1.
This brought in Laxman, another high-profile returnee, who scored his first run after 10 balls, and looked unconvincing throughout. Laxman was Dilshan's first wicket, edging an offbreak on to the stumps, and sparking off a chain reaction, that resulted in the wickets of Ganguly and Dravid. Ganguly was undone by a Chandana legbreak after a scratchy 51 that took him all of 110 balls, while Dravid was beaten by Dilshan's drift.
Dhoni looked busy before spooning a catch back to Dilshan; Suresh Raina followed in similar fashion. Mohammad Kaif was the dominant partner in an alliance with Pathan in a partnership that brought 33 runs in six overs. Pathan blossomed after Kaif's dismissal, striking 17 runs off the expensive Dilhara Fernando's final over, and India finished with 220 for 8. Jayawardene and Chandana ensured that it just wasn't enough.
Ranajit Dam is staff writer of Cricinfo