Featherbeds, a thorn in Test cricket's flesh

Sachin Tendulkar...a snazzy bike for a stolid innings.-PTI

The Sinhalese Sports Club Ground proved to be a batsman's paradise. This proved to be a poor advertisement for Test cricket. Over to S. Dinakar.

During times when Test cricket in the sub-continent is grappling with dwindling spectator response, the second Test was a poor advertisement for the longer format. The scores at the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) Ground tell their own story. Sri Lanka declared at a massive 642 for four and India gained the lead making 707 — its highest Test total away from home.

There was hardly any assistance for the bowlers as the batsmen plundered runs. As a fair contest between bat and ball, the match offered little. The authorities in the sub-continent need to take a hard look at the preparation of pitches. Runs lose their meaning beyond a certain point.

Spin legend Muttiah Muralitharan, now retired from Test cricket, said, “You see more and more placid wickets these days. Only a few curators have complete knowledge of pitch preparation. Then there is pressure from the television companies for such tracks. If the match ends in three days, they stand to lose revenue. The curators are unable to strike a balance.”

Former Sri Lankan batting great Anura Tennekoon said, “Ideally, a pitch should assist the pacemen in the early stages. Then, on the fourth and fifth days, there should be assistance for the spinners. You do not have to under-prepare a pitch. A good sporting track with consistent bounce can last all five days and still produce a result.”

Curator Anurudhha Polonwita, who earlier predicted that the pitch was full of runs, was on the back-foot after the run-feast ended. He attributed the mountain of runs to the depleted attacks of the two sides. The curator had earlier said, “All the grass from the pitch will be removed. You will see a brown wicket for the match.”

The only phase of the Test where there appeared to be some life in the wicket was on the final session of the fifth day. By then, it was too late.

From an Indian perspective, the biggest gain was a century on debut by the left-handed Suresh Raina. He had figured in 98 ODIs, the most played by any player before making his Test debut. Playing only because Yuvraj Singh was laid low by fever, Raina walked in at a pressure situation and made his first Test innings count. India was 241 for four and Raina played with composure and sure-footedness to become only the 12th Indian to cross the three-figure mark on debut.

And Sachin Tendulkar showed that his hunger for runs had not diminished one bit. His 203 in hot and humid conditions underlined the spirit of the man. His 48th Test century will be remembered for sheer commitment.

Perhaps, a Sri Lankan attack with Muralitharan's guile and Lasith Malinga's air-speed and reverse swing might have stretched the Indian batting. But Malinga pulled out of the Test with a sore knee.

Sri Lanka once again won the toss and Tillekaratne Dilshan blitzed a 42-ball 54 to set the tempo. Indian pacemen Ishant Sharma and Abhimanyu Mithun made the task of the batsmen easier by pitching more short than full.

Tharanga Paranavitana, the left-handed opener, and Kumar Sangakkara, continued to torment the Indian attack. Both notched up hundreds in successive Tests.

The Indian spin bowling disappointed. One expected more from the experienced Harbhajan Singh. He should have attempted to deceive the batsmen in the air, set them up on the drive. More so, since the off-spinner was bowling at two left-handers. On the contrary, there was hardly any loop in Harbhajan's bowling. Is he imparting less spin to the ball these days?

The Sri Lankan ploy was simple. Both Paranavitana and Sangakkara left the deliveries spinning away from them. Once the line of the bowlers suffered, they collected runs with ease. Both Harbhajan and left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha were not persistent with their line and length. On placid wickets, accuracy in bowling leading to denial of runs can also fetch wickets.

Sangakkara, striking the ball with lovely balance and timing on both sides of the wicket, progressed to his seventh Test double century bringing him level with the legendary Walter Hammond. Only Brian Lara and the incomparable Don Bradman have notched up more double centuries in Tests.

The arrival of Mahela Jayawardene did not make things any easier for the bowlers. He too played on the patience of the spinners. Deliveries spinning away from him were allowed to travel into the 'keeper's gloves. As the spinners were forced to switch to a middle and leg-stump line, he brought his full range of on-side strokes into play.

Jayawardene, fleet-footed as he came down the track for drives and lofted shots, also played the ball late. He has soft hands and a silken touch.

The gifted right-hander, during his stroke-filled 174, brought up his 10th Test hundred at the SSC. Jayawardene now has the most number of centuries at a single venue, surpassing Bradman's mark of nine hundreds at the MCG.

“Sir Don got his nine hundreds in much, much quicker time than my 23 Tests. There is no comparison, he is the greatest. At the same time, this is among the highlights of my career. To play in the ground you grew up in, in front of your own club members and get hundreds is a special feeling,” said a modest Mahela.

There was no respite for the Indian bowlers. The smooth-stroking Thilan Samaraweera eased to 76 lovely runs.

The Indians laid a solid platform with the marauding Virender Sehwag and Murali Vijay putting on 165 runs for the first wicket. Sehwag batted with typical nonchalance, cutting and driving his way to an unbeaten 64 in only 18 overs of batting on day two.

Sehwag does not bat for individual landmarks; he was 99 on the third day when he jumped out to a delivery from debutant off-spinner Suraj Randiv that bounced more than usual and straightened for 'keeper Prasanna Jayawardene to whip off the bails.

This was the quintessential Sehwag for you — an entertainer who walks the tightrope.

Filling in for the injured Gautam Gambhir (right knee), Vijay came up with an organised 58. He is a well-balanced batsman who can drive pleasingly in front of the wicket. However, he needs to build on starts.

The lanky Randiv, who bowls with a high-arm action and extracts bounce, operated well in phases, but his length suffered as Tendulkar used his feet cleverly. Ajantha Mendis, who imposed himself on the Indian batsmen here in 2008, was rightly played off the front-foot by both Tendulkar and Raina.

Randiv and Mendis did trouble India on the third day — the side was 173 for three and 241 for four — before Tendulkar and Raina made the Sri Lankans suffer under the blazing sun. The Sri Lankans would, however, look back on a rare 'keeping lapse by Prasanna Jayawardene. Tendulkar, on 29, attempted to upper-cut paceman Dilhara Fernando and Prasanna put down a high catch.

Like most great batsmen, Tendulkar made the Sri Lankans pay.

THE SCORES

Second Test: India-Sri Lanka, Sinhalese Sports Club Ground, Colombo, July 26-30, 2010. Match drawn.

Sri Lanka — 1st innings: T. Paranavitana b Sharma 100; T. Dilshan c Laxman b Ojha 54; K. Sangakkara c Dravid b Sehwag 219; M. Jayawardene c Raina b Harbhajan 174; T. Samaraweera (not out) 76; Extras (b 4, lb 8, w 2, nb 5) 19. Total (for four wkts. decl.) 642.

Fall of wickets: 1-99, 2-273, 3-466, 4-642.

India bowling: Mithun 23-5-117-0; Sharma 23-5-102-1; Ojha 46-9-172-1; Harbhajan 42.4-4-147-1; Sehwag 20-0-71-1; Raina 5-0-21-0.

India —1st innings: M. Vijay lbw Mendis 58; V. Sehwag st. P. Jayawardene b Randiv 99; R. Dravid lbw Randiv 3; S. Tendulkar c P. Jayawardene b Dilshan 203; V. Laxman lbw Mendis 29; S. Raina c Sangakkara b Mendis 120; M. Dhoni c & b Dilshan 76; Harbhajan Singh c Sangakkara b Dilshan 0; A. Mithun b Mendis 41; I. Sharma c Sangakkara b Fernando 27; P. Ojha (not out)18: Extras (b 9, lb 9, w 4, nb 11) 33; Total 707.

Fall of wickets: 1-165, 2-169, 3-173, 4-241, 5-497, 6-592, 7-592, 8-643, 9-668.

Sri Lanka bowling: Prasad 22-3-101-0; Fernando 31.2-1-114-1; Mathews 9-1-24-0; Randiv 73-16-222-2. Mendis 63-10-172-4; Dilshan 27-6-56-3.

Sri Lanka — 2nd innings: T. Paranavitana c Laxman b Harbhajan 34; T. Dilshan c Sharma b Mithun 14; K. Sangakkara (not out) 42; M. Jayawardene lbw Sehwag 5; T. Samaraweera (batting) 10; Extras (b 8, lb 8, nb 8) 24; Total (for three wkts.) 129.

Fall of wickets: 1-50, 2-73, 3-97.

India bowling: Mithun 6-1-17-1; Sharma 4-0-31-0; Sehwag 9-1-17-1; Harbhajan 13-0-35-1; Ojha 13-6-13-0.