A match-winner to the core

Published : Sep 01, 2001 00:00 IST


EVEN those watching from the majestic Galle Fort overlooking the ground would have felt the thunder and lightning of Dilhara Fernando's express deliveries and Sanath Jayasuriya's explosive strokes. And then Kumara Sangakkara's pleasing maiden hundred and Muttiah Muralitharan's tantalising off-spin bowling that came like the cool breeze blowing across the ground from the nearby Indian Ocean, ensured that the advantage stayed with Sri Lanka.

In stark contrast, the Indian performance was shoddy, shocking and shallow. A display that was lacking in both courage and character.

The Lankans were good, but the Indians made it easier for them. Lacking was the spirit to battle it out in the middle and a Test match was given away on a platter.

Among the most spectacular venues Galle certainly is, among the most exciting cricketers Fernando and Jayasuriya surely are, among the most industrious players Sangakkara must undoubtedly be, yet, the first Test was anything but engaging in terms of a contest.

It was Sri Lanka all the way over an Indian side that stumbled in the last 20 minutes of the first day and never really recovered. The island nation had scored its first Test victory over India in 16 years.

Even as the dust settled down after the Lankans had romped home by 10 wickets on the first session of the fourth day, Indian coach John Wright made a telling comment.

"They are an extremely fit side. They have been working on it for the last five years. Dilhara Fernando was as quick at the end of the day as in his first spell," the Indian coach was making his point very clear.

Indeed, the superior fitness of the Lankans has been a huge factor in their victories over the last two years with Alex Kontouri playing a huge role in this area as a physio who can do magic with cricketers.

And of course, there is the canny Dav Whatmore who understands cricket better than most. The former Aussie cricketer approaches the game like chess, knowing when to move which pawn.

Lanka also has a skipper who leads from the front. Both in the Coca-Cola triangular one-day competition and the first Test, Sanath Jayasuriya set a personal example, making runs that tilted the scales.

In sharp contrast, at least in the first Test, Sourav Ganguly appeared a man in a daze with the bat, desperately out of form at the Test level.

The Indians were psychologically on the back-foot too on a surface that was distinctly green. Curator Jayananda Warnaweera had made it clear before the match that he would not cut a blade of grass on the pitch.

Yet, it was not a greentop since it was not wet. In fact, it was a green, dry wicket and as Whatmore observed later, the grass helped the fast bowlers while the dryness suited the spinners. On this pitch, the Indians should have made more runs really.

With four paceman in the side - Dilhara Fernando, Chaminda Vaas, Ruchira Perera and Suresh Perera - Jayasuriya was bold enough to insert the opposition.

However, the manner in which Shiv Sundar Das and Sadagopan Ramesh shaped in the first session of the match, the Lankan captain's decision appeared to have back-fired.

Das, unlike himself, was not too comfortable against the short ball, but battled on, and Ramesh, in need of a good knock following the disappointments of Zimbabwe, appeared in good touch too.

However, both departed in their 40s, when in sight of bigger things. The dismissal of Ramesh was a particularly interesting one with Muttiah Muralitharan flighting the ball, inviting the drive, with Jayasuriya stationing himself at covers for the miscued drive. The ploy worked.

Later, Wright said the batsmen who got a start should go on to bigger things and he must have had the two openers in mind. In the same breath, it must be mentioned that when there was juice for the seamers in the pitch, Das and Ramesh took the sting off the attack, made things easier for the rest. That the rest could not cash in on it is a different story.

In the absence of Sachin Tendulkar and V. V. S. Laxman, there was a lot of responsibility on Rahul Dravid, but the vice-captain suffered a rare failure, done in by Muralitharan, his attempt to flick the ace offie not quite coming off.

Mohammed Kaif, in only his second Test, displayed sound back-foot play, drove pleasingly through the covers, got to 37, but was consumed by a super quick delivery from Fernando, that cut in a shade as well.

The fiery paceman, now charging in with the second new ball, scalped Hemang Badani, going through batting horrors, who chased a wide delivery for a gleeful Sangakkara to pouch the edge. The two late strikes that changed the course of the Test.

And Ganguly was dismissed by a mean short ball from Fernando on the second morning that, however, appeared to go off his shoulder. The Indian captain might have been a touch unlucky this time, but there is no getting away from the fact that he has fallen woefully short of expectations with the bat in recent times, his inability to cope with the short stuff coming into sharp focus.

"I am trying everything possible to score runs. But that is not affecting my captaincy. Mixing the two is asking for trouble," Ganguly said, but the point is if the captain fails repeatedly, it sends the wrong message to the rest of the team.

Well, Dilhara Fernando turned on the heat in the second morning, Muralitharan kept the pressure from the press box end and the Indians were bundled out for 187. Fernando's spell on the second morning read 5-2-10-3, and his figures with the second new ball, 7-2-18-5. In the context of the game, his two spells on either side of day one and two were the turning points in the game,

During the phase, Fernando had also struck Javagal Srinath on the little finger of his left hand (after the game, an x-ray revealed a fracture, ruling him out of the rest of the series). An eventful spell indeed.

When Sri Lanka began its reply, Jayasuriya blazed away, cutting and pulling the Indian pace attack, and it was an onslaught that seized the initiative from the fielding side straightaway.

Srinath and Prasad provided width to the Sri Lankans and the result was a flurry of boundaries, with Jayasuriya cutting loose. The southpaw dismantled Prasad, in his comeback Test, in the bowler's first spell and then took on Srinath (he bowled with a plaster on his left hand) in the post-lunch session square-cutting the paceman for a stunning six over point.

The opening pair added 101 runs in just 27.1 overs with the technically sound Marvan Atapattu scoring just 33 of them, this included a lovely on-the-knees cover-drive off Srinath though.

The Lankan captain smashed Prasad square of the wicket and soon reached his eighth Test century (105b, 16x4, 1x6) to the delight of a small crowd.

Jayasuriya left soon after tea for 115, edging a well-directed short ball from Zaheer Khan to 'keeper Sameer Dighe. For once Jayasuriya wasn't given the width and was cramped for space too.

Mahela Jayawardene and Russel Arnold got a start but failed to consolidate and Hashan Tillekeratne, in his comeback Test, was trapped leg-before by a rejuvenated Srinath on the third morning.

It was Kumara Sangakkara, the spunky wicket-keeper batsman, who held the innings together, even as wickets fell at the other end. The left-hander, put down at slip by Dravid off Harbhajan early on, grew in confidence, producing some attractive drives, besides getting into position to pull quickly.

Sangakkara has been through some rough times with the bat in recent times, but the team management backed him and the youngster has responded to the challenge.

As he admitted later, Sangakkara was nervous as he neared his century, having missed the mark narrowly twice (98 against South Africa at Centurion and 95 against England at Kandy).

And on this occasion he was on 92 when last man Muralitharan joined him at the crease. With the off-spinner giving him spirited support, Sangakkara, thumping Srinath down the ground twice, reached the three-figure mark (224b, 13x4), and celebrated the feat by raising his bat triumphantly towards the dressing room where his team-mates applauded.

Srinath scalped Muralitharan soon for a five-wicket haul - five for 114 - taking him close to the 200-wicket mark in the process. It had been a brave display by him in the overall context, yet could have been so much better had he bowled with more discipline on the second day.

With Sri Lanka grabbing a lead of 175 runs, the pressure was right on India, when it went in to bat on the third afternoon, and the side succumbed. Left-arm paceman Ruchira Perera, who can be sharp on occasions, removed openers Das and Ramesh, the completely out-of-sorts Ganguly played all over a full length delivery from Fernando, and then Muralitharan took over, teasing and tormenting the batsmen with his bag of tricks.

The young Indians also made things more difficult for themselves by just pushing forward tamely, allowing the ace off-spinner to get on top.

"The youngsters were playing Murali for the first time in a Test. He's a great bowler and it's not easy," said Ganguly after the match.

Still the team management should have come up with a strategy to counter the dangerous off-spinner.

Well, the story of the rest of the Test is simple. Muralitharan cut though the middle-order like a knife through butter to end with five for 49, the silly point and the short-leg fielders kept busy by the Indian batsmen.

Rahul Dravid, displaying steely resolve, made a fine unbeaten 61 (173b, 7x4), his two defiant pulls off Muralitharan on the fourth morning signalling his intentions to battle it out. And Venkatesh Prasad gave him useful support, the ninth wicket pair raising 60, and taking the side past the innings defeat mark.

And with Lanka requiring to make just six runs for victory, Jayasuriya smashed Zaheer Khan square of the wicket, and the home team had triumphed by 10 wickets.

In many respects, the story of the Galle Test was the story of the two captains - Sanath Jayasuriya and Sourav Ganguly. The rest of it you all know.

The scores: India 187 (Das 40, Ramesh 42, Kaif 37, Fernando 5-42, Muralitharan 3-41) & 180 (Dravid 61 n.o., Muralitharan 5-49) lost to Sri Lanka 362 (Atapattu 33, Jayasuriya 111, Sangakkara 105 n.o., Jayawardene 28, Srinath 5-114, Zaheer 3-89) and 6 for no loss.

ON the eve of the Galle Test, Sanath Jayasuriya, not wearing a helmet, was struck just under the right ear by a nasty delivery from former Lankan paceman Ravindra Pushpakumara, who had come down to help the National team at the nets.

Yet, when one met him minutes after that incident, the Lankan captain was smiling. In fact, but for a small plaster over the injured area, it would have been hard to tell that this man had taken a stinging blow on a sensitive portion of his head.

A lot of cricketers might have taken a break, left for the confines of their hotel rooms, but not Jayasuriya. He addressed the media, looked forward to the Test, and was confident that the Lankans could pull it off.

It is this refreshingly positive attitude that reflects in the explosive cricketer's batting as well. He refuses to let the pressure get to him, plays his natural game and backs himself while taking on the best of bowlers in international cricket.

And when a shot-maker like Sanath Jayasuriya gets into a mean mood, he invariably turns a contest around with his explosive power hitting.

Poor Venkatesh Prasad, back in the Indian Test side after the Kolkata game against the Aussies, did not quite know what hit him when Jayasuriya launched into the paceman with thundering square-cuts and telling on-side shots.

The Indian paceman provided him room and Jayasuriya is not the kind to look a gift horse in the mouth. "You don't give width to the best square-cutter in the world," said Wright later.

There was seam movement in the pitch and though India's first innings score of 187 wasn't adequate to turn the heat on Lanka, it still was important for Jayasuriya to fire early.

These days, with Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva no longer around, he is such a key player in the Sri Lankan scheme of things in both forms of the game. If he gets cracking, the side invariably progresses to a bigger score. And on those occasions when he fails, the Lankan batting can be quite vulnerable.

At Galle, he was in prime form, and nothing captured the spirit of Jayasuriya's batting better than a square-cut off Javagal Srinath that soared over the point fence for an astonishing six. Indeed, he took the Indian pace spearhead on in the post-tea session, with the runs coming in a cascade.

When Jayasuriya was finally dismissed soon after tea, nicking a sharply climbing delivery close to his body from left-arm paceman Zaheer Khan, he had already done his job with a blazing 111 (138b, 16x4, 1x6). On a pitch where the others found run-scoring a hazardous task, he made it look ridiculously easy. That's the special trait in match-winners. Little wonder he was the Man of the Match.

Actually, the place where he grew, learnt his cricket and took his first few steps in the game is just 40 km from Galle. Yes, there would have been celebrations in the little town of Matara following its favourite son's exploits in the first Test.

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