A fabulous farewell to Muralitharan

A new high...Muttiah Muralitharan celebrates with skipper Kumar Sangakkara (left) and wicketkeeper P. Jayawardene (centre) on dismissing Pragyan Ojha for his 800th wicket.-AP A new high...Muttiah Muralitharan celebrates with skipper Kumar Sangakkara (left) and wicketkeeper P. Jayawardene (centre) on dismissing Pragyan Ojha for his 800th wicket.

The failure of a depleted bowling attack might have put enormous pressure on the Indians, yet the capitulation of a much-vaunted batting line-up was inexplicable, writes S. Dinakar.

The Indians would want to forget the first Test, played at the scenic Galle, in a hurry. The entire second day's play was washed out and yet India lost the match with plenty of time to spare on the final day.

The failure of a depleted attack might have put enormous pressure on the Indian batsmen, yet the capitulation of a much-vaunted line-up was inexplicable.

Even the most optimistic of the Sri Lankans might not have expected India to be bowled out twice in just over five sessions. It was indeed a shocking display by the top-ranked team in Test cricket.

The match ended in a blaze of glory for Muttiah Muralitharan. The off-spin wizard picked up the eight wickets required to become the first bowler in Test cricket to reach the 800-wicket mark.

Amidst much tension and drama on the final day, he prised out last man Pragyan Ojha — caught in the slips — to embrace a historic landmark.

The Sri Lankans gave a memorable send-off to Muralitharan in his final Test. The off-spinner was carried around the field by his jubilant team-mates. Fireworks lit the sky and a colourful band played lilting tunes. What a farewell!

“I was more worried about us getting India all out and the prospect of rain than my 800 wickets. It was more important that we won the Test,” said Muralitharan.

Lasith Malinga, on his return to Test cricket after more than two years due to a troublesome right knee, also played a key role in Sri Lanka's emphatic 10-wicket win. The fiery paceman's five for 50 in the second innings was a game-clinching effort. This natural is a match-winner.

Malinga tormented the Indians. He was buzzing with the new-ball, getting his deliveries to swing both ways and struck at vital stages.

The left-handed Gautam Gambhir fell to one swinging into him in the first innings. In the second, he was set up with deliveries darting in and then nicked the one that moved away. This was clever bowling. Malinga also got his deliveries to reverse in an alarming manner.

Rahul Dravid, who was caught at leg-gully while attempting to flick in the second innings, said, “The ball did not reverse as much as I expected it to. It seemed to straighten in the air.”

Remarkably, Malinga was able to control the extent of his reverse swing. Sachin Tendulkar, who made a sublime 84 in the second innings and was associated in a fighting 119-run third-wicket partnership with Dravid, was dismissed by a delivery that reversed appreciably.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni too was fired out by a delivery that rocketed in. “If you don't read Malinga, you are in trouble,” he said.

But then, given Malinga's sling-shot action, it is extremely hard to pick him. And since the paceman's arm is extremely low, it is difficult for the batsmen to spot the point of release or determine which is the shiny side of the ball.

Malinga probed the Indian batsmen relentlessly. He also sent down some scorching short-pitched deliveries — these were judiciously bowled between his swinging sizzlers — to hustle the Indian batsmen. V. V. S. Laxman was struck on the helmet in the first innings as he shaped for a pull. The well-directed short-pitched deliveries from Malinga affected the footwork of the Indian batsmen.

“It was important that we used Malinga and Murali in spells that counted,” Sangakkara said later. It was not surprising that Malinga was adjudged the Man of the Match.

Muralitharan's five-wicket haul in the first innings opened up the Test which otherwise might have drifted into a draw. The off-spin legend's bowling possessed the bite of old as he got a few of his deliveries to spin and bounce. And with the close catchers in position, the pressure on the batsmen seldom eased.

This said, the Indian batting lacked character for most part. Some of the shot selection by the senior batsmen left a lot to be desired. Virender Sehwag pursued a wide one from left-arm paceman Chanaka Welegedara and had to walk back after a stroke-filled century — the batsman's 20th Test hundred. While there is no denying that Sehwag is at his best when he plays his natural game, he could have been positive without being reckless.

Tendulkar chose to sweep a fuller length ball from Muralitharan and was adjudged leg-before, while Dravid was caught short running to the non-striker's end — he turned back for the second run — after Sehwag off-drove seamer Angelo Mathews. It later transpired that Sehwag had called for a second run and Dravid responded.

Laxman's half-hearted pull off Malinga cost him his wicket. Had the celebrated Indian batsmen played more responsibly in the first innings, the Test could surely have been saved.

The Indian bowling, particularly the spin department, was largely ineffective. Pacemen Ishant Sharma and Abhimanyu Mithun bowled well on the third day, but a weakened Indian attack was rarely able to apply consistent pressure that forces mistakes from batsmen.

Debutant Mithun did show some promise, bowling at a lively pace and testing the batsmen with sharp incoming deliveries. Given that he has a front-on action, Mithun might never be able to swing the ball away from the right-hander. However, if he develops the one that straightens, Mithun could be a handful. He has a useful bouncer in his repertoire.

Ishant operated to a better off-stump line while extracting some bounce and producing slight movement on the third day when the pacemen were assisted by some moisture on the track following heavy rain. But the lanky speedster needs to bowl with fire and precision when it matters.

The absence of Zaheer Khan and Santhakumaran Sreesanth owing to injuries has exposed the lack of depth in Indian pace bowling. India's spin stock was also laid bare. Harbhajan Singh, recovering from a viral fever, was a pale shadow of himself. There was hardly any bite in the off-spinner's bowling.

Pragyan Ojha disappointed. The left-arm spinner lacked basic control over line and length. There were far too many ‘hit me' deliveries from him on either side of the pitch.

Opener Tharanga Paranavitana and skipper Sangakkara cashed in on some ordinary bowling to notch up centuries. Paranavitana appears to be an organised batsman who can put away the bad deliveries. Sangakkara's body balance and his ability to play strokes — both vertical and horizontal — on either side of the wicket underlined his innings.

And just when the Indian bowlers seemed to be getting back into the contest on the third day, Rangana Herath, better known for his left-arm spin, and Malinga whipped up a century partnership. The Indian bowling was fodder for the Sri Lankan bowlers as well. The host went past the 500-run mark and the heat was on the Indian batsmen.

The elegant Laxman defied with the tail-enders on the final day, but the writing was on the wall for India.

Eventually, Mahendra Singh Dhoni's men succumbed to the stress created by the Sri Lankan bowling and catching; the Indian fielding on Day One had been abysmal.

Sri Lanka was a deserving winner. The team gave Muralitharan a wonderful gift in his final Test.

THE SCORE

First Test: India-Sri Lanka, Galle International Stadium, July 18-22, 2010. Sri Lanka won by 10 wickets.

Sri Lanka — 1st innings: T. Paranavitana c Dhoni b Sharma 111, T. Dilshan c Dhoni b Mithun 25, K. Sangakkara c Tendulkar b Sehwag 103, M. Jayawardene lbw Sharma 48, T. Samaraweera lbw Mithun 0, A. Mathews c Laxman b Sharma 41, P. Jayawardene lbw Mithun 27, R. Herath (not out) 80, L. Malinga c Harbhajan b Mithun 64, M. Muralitharan (not out) 5, Extras (b-2, lb-9, nb-5) 16. Total (for 8 wkts decl) 520.

Fall of wickets: 1-55, 2-236, 3-259, 4-260, 5-322, 6-344, 7-393, 8-508.

India bowling: I. Sharma 28-5-145-3, Mithun 28-3-105-4, Harbhajan 30-4-98-0, Ojha 28-1-115-0, Sehwag 10-0-46-1.

India — 1st innings: G. Gambhir lbw Malinga 2, V. Sehwag c Paranavitana b Welegedara 109, R. Dravid (run out) 18, S. Tendulkar lbw Muralitharan 8, V. V. S. Laxman c Dilshan b Malinga 22, Yuvraj Singh c M. Jayawardene b Muralitharan 52, M. Dhoni b Muralitharan 33, Harbhajan Singh st P. Jayawardene b Herath 2, I. Sharma (not out) 5, P. Ojha c M. Jayawardene b Muralitharan 3, A. Mithun b Muralitharan 8, Extras (b-1, lb-1, w-2, nb-10) 14. Total: 276.

Fall of wickets: 1-2, 2-68, 3-101, 4-169, 5-178, 6-252, 7-259, 8-259, 9-266.

Sri Lanka bowling: Malinga 13-0-55-2, Welegedara 11-1-69-1, Herath 18-1-62-1, Mathews 5-0-19-0, Muralitharan 17-1-63-5, Dilshan 1-0-6-0.

India — 2nd innings: G. Gambhir c P. Jayawardene b Malinga 0, V. Sehwag c M. Jayawardene b Welegedara 31, R. Dravid c Sangakkara b Malinga 44, S. Tendulkar lbw Malinga 84, V. V. S. Laxman (run out) 69, Yuvraj Singh c M. Jayawardene b Muralitharan 5, M. Dhoni b Malinga 4, Harbhajan Singh lbw Muralitharan 8, A. Mithun lbw Malinga 25, I. Sharma (not out) 31, P. Ojha c M. Jayawardene b Muralitharan 13, Extras (b-5, lb-9, w-2, nb-8) 24, Total: 338.

Fall of wickets: 1-0, 2-42, 3-161, 4-172, 5-181, 6-186, 7-197, 8-246, 9-314.

Sri Lanka bowling: Malinga 17-2-50-5, Welegedara 10-2-43-1, Herath 27-3-60-0, Mathews 7-3-13-0, Muralitharan 44.4-7-128-3, Dilshan 10-1-30-0.

Sri Lanka — 2nd innings: T. Paranavitana (not out) 23, T. Dilshan (not out) 68, Extras (w-1, nb-4) 5. Total (for no loss) 96.

India bowling: Mithun 5-0-33-0, I. Sharma 4-0-28-0, Ojha 3-0-11-0, Harbhajan 2.1-0-24-0.