At Sara, a see-saw series draw

Losing a crucial toss and then coming back in a Test can be hard in Sri Lankan conditions. But the Indian batting was spirited, and more importantly, the bowlers came up with an improved performance.

M. S. Dhoni and V. V. S. Laxman share a lighter moment during a Test match against Sri Lanka.   -  AP Photo

Losing a crucial toss and then coming back in a Test can be hard in Sri Lankan conditions. But the Indian batting was spirited, and more importantly, the bowlers came up with an improved performance. Over to S. Dinakar.

A stunning innings under pressure by V.V.S. Laxman clinched it for India. The elegant right-hander's unbeaten 103 enabled the side nail a pursuit of 257 — India's fourth highest successful chase ever in Tests — at the P. Saravanamuttu Stadium.

The series was squared 1-1 after a Test that swung one way, then the other. After a mountain of runs on a placid track at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground, the final Test offered a more even contest between bat and ball.

With more life in the pitch, there was more life in the Test as well. Much of the match was engrossing. The duel also brought Test cricket to the fore.

Laxman's equanimity and his smooth-stroking ways, even under extreme pressure, was the difference between the two sides. The Test was a lot closer than what the eventual margin of victory — five wickets — indicated. That Laxman battled a spasm in his lower back during his innings reflected his resolve.

With an attack even more depleted after frontline spinner Harbhajan Singh was ruled out due to a strained calf muscle, India managed to bowl out Sri Lanka twice. Mahendra Singh Dhoni's men displayed spirit and fight.

Losing a crucial toss and then coming back in a Test can be hard in these conditions. Importantly for India, the bowlers came up with an improved performance.

Left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha is still a work-in-progress but he did operate to a more telling line in the Test. He scalped seven batsmen in the match, four of them in the first innings.

His memorable moment, though, came in the second innings when he drew the accomplished Mahela Jayawardene forward with a flighted delivery around the off-stump, which then spun away to take the edge. Ojha, however, needs to develop the arm-ball.

This was also an intriguing Test. On all days, there was help for the bowlers in the morning because of the moisture in the wicket. The surface eased out in the middle session. Invariably, wickets fell in the morning and then there was a recovery. In the last hour of play, the bowlers hit back again.

The bowlers also struck when the ball was new. As the Kookaburra ball with its less pronounced seam got relatively older — between 30 and 40 overs — even the spinners seemed to struggle. Yet, is bowling, spin bowling in particular, so dependent on the seam?

After all, the art of spin is a lot about flight and deception, use of the crease, subtle changes in length and trajectory. Imparting revolutions on the ball is more about a strong wrist and supple fingers.

The bowlers could not complain about the surface for the final Test. Even when the track tended to settle down, they were always in with a chance, for the odd ball behaved differently. There was bounce and movement for the pacemen and some purchase for the spinners. Batting called for focus and application.

Entering a gut-wrenching final day, India required 204 runs to win with seven wickets remaining. The team had lost ground on day four after making deep inroads in the first session. Sri Lanka had recovered from 125 for eight to 267 and then India slumped to 53 for three.

Then, Laxman assumed centre-stage. His partnerships of 109 with a determined Sachin Tendulkar for the fifth wicket and an unbeaten 87 with an attacking Suresh Raina were crucial as India held its nerve on day five.

Lasith Malinga should have started the Sri Lankan attack on day five with the impressive young off-spinner Suraj Randiv. Instead, Kumar Sangakkara opted to have left-arm paceman Chanaka Welegedara as Randiv's partner.

Apart from night-watchman Ishant Sharma, Sri Lanka failed to pick another wicket in the critical first session. Interestingly, Malinga sent down just two overs in the play before lunch.

Strategically, Sri Lanka was found wanting. Sangakkara's ploy of stationing three fielders in catching positions around the bat on the leg-side and not having a slip for Randiv in the morning was puzzling. The field-setting made Randiv a one-dimensional bowler. From round-the-wicket, he spun his deliveries from the middle or leg-stump.

The ball straightening at the batsman from the off-stump — Virender Sehwag had been caught at slip off Randiv by this delivery on fourth day evening — was marginalised.

The Sri Lankan ploy of packing the on-side and leaving gaping holes on the off-side enabled Laxman and Tendulkar to pick singles and twos at will. Gradually, the pressure eased on India. There were as many as 48 singles in this critical partnership.

Although let down by the field placements on the final day, Randiv made an impression. He picked up nine wickets, four in the first innings and all five that fell in the second.

More importantly, the lanky bowler, releasing the ball from a high-arm action, extracted turn and bounce. He sent down long spells without losing concentration. The lad has a future.

The match had several protagonists. Sehwag's cracking 109 in the first innings provided India with momentum after Sri Lanka posted 425 in its first innings. An under-rated off-spinner, Sehwag also struck vital blows with his tidy bowling. This influential cricketer was adjudged the Man of the Series.

Thilan Samaraweera's innings of 137 and 83 — both came in crisis situations — underlined the essential qualities of his batsmanship. He countered the bowling with footwork, balance and timing. The Sri Lankan also displayed fine temperament and made the tail rally with him.

Indeed, there was sting in the tail of both teams. Abhimanyu Mithun, Amit Mishra and Ajantha Mendis had a mixed time with the ball in the Test, but came up with vital contributions and partnerships with the bat.

Mendis' entertaining yet focussed 78 in the second innings made for compelling viewing. However, the Indians handled his bowling with a lot more comfort than in 2008.

The left-handed Suresh Raina's 62 in the first innings and an unbeaten, counter-attacking 41 in the second — in pressure situations — augurs well for India.

However, it could have been a different story for India had Tillekaratne Dilshan, at short-leg, held Tenduklar (on 18) off Randiv on the final day. The Test was not without a touch of controversy. Opener Murali Vijay was adjudged out after the decision was referred to the third umpire — the question was whether the catch was taken cleanly by Mahela Jayawardene at backward short-leg — in the dramatic last minutes of day four. The television replays were inconclusive and the Indian camp was unhappy.

At the end of it all, the Indians had plenty to be happy about.

THE SCORES

Third Test: India-Sri Lanka, P. Sara Oval, Colombo, August 3-7, 2010.

Result: India won by 5 wickets.

Sri Lanka — 1st innings: T. Paranavitana c Dhoni b Sharma 8, T. Dilshan run out 41, K. Sangakkara c Sehwag b Ojha 75, M. Jayawardene lbw b Ojha 56, T. Samaraweera (not out) 137, A. Mathews lbw b Ojha 45, P. Jayawardene lbw b Ojha 9, S. Randiv c Dravid b Sehwag 8, L. Malinga c & b Mishra 4, A. Mendis c Raina b Sharma 3, C. Welegedara c Dhoni b Sharma 4, Extras (b-8, lb-4, w-7, nb-16) 35.Total: 425.

Fall of wickets: 1-15, 2-102, 3-157, 4-241, 5-330, 6-359, 7-381, 8-386, 9-421.

India bowling: Mithun 22-2-78-0, Sharma 23-6-72-3, Mishra 42-3-140-1, Ojha 46-10-115-4, Sehwag 5-0-8-1.

India — 1st innings: M. Vijay c Mendis b Malinga 14, V. Sehwag c Welegedara b Randiv 109, R. Dravid lbw b Mathews 23, S. Tendulkar c P. Jayawardene b Malinga 41, V. V. S. Laxman c M. Jayawardene b Mendis 56, S. Raina c Sangakkara b Mendis 62, M. S. Dhoni c P. Jayawardene b Malinga 15, A. Mithun c M. Jayawardene b Randiv 46, A. Mishra c Dilshan b Randiv 40, I. Sharma c Paranavitana b Randiv 8, P. Ojha (not out) 1, Extras (b-6, lb-6, w-1, nb-8) 21. Total: 436.

Fall of wickets: 1-49, 2-92, 3-183, 4-199, 5-304, 6-321, 7-350, 8-414, 9-433.

Sri Lanka bowling: Malinga 30-3-119-3, Welegedara 15-0-88-0, Mendis 30-4-109-2, Mathews 4-0-13-1, Randiv 25.1-6-80-4, Dilshan 2-0-15-0.

Sri Lanka — 2nd innings: T. Paranavitana c Dhoni b Sehwag 16, T. Dilshan c Vijay b Sehwag 13, K. Sangakkara c Raina b Ojha 28, S. Randiv lbw b Ojha 6, M. Jayawardene c Dravid b Ojha 5, T. Samaraweera c Dhoni b Mithun 83, A. Mathews c Tendulkar b Mishra 5, P. Jayawardene lbw b Mishra 0, L. Malinga lbw b Sehwag 15, A. Mendis c Raina b Mishra 78, C. Welegedara (not out) 421. Total: 267.

Fall of wickets: 1-32, 2-39, 3-63, 4-77, 5-78, 6-87, 7-87, 8-125, 9-243.

India bowling: Mithun 8-1-22-1, Sharma 17-3-54-0, Ojha 28-5-89-3, Sehwag 15-0-51-3, Mishra 17.2-1-47-3.

India — 2nd innings: M. Vijay c M. Jayawardene b Randiv 27, V. Sehwag c M. Jayawardene b Randiv 0, R. Dravid b Randiv 7, S. Tendulkar c P. Jayawardene b Randiv 54, I. Sharma c Sangakkara b Randiv 4, V. V. S. Laxman (not out) 103, S. Raina (not out) 41, Extras (b-5, lb-6, w-2, nb-9) 22. Total: (for 5 wkts) 258.

Fall of wickets: 1-10, 2-27, 3-49, 4-62, 5-171.

Sri Lanka bowling: Malinga 12-1-49-0, Randiv 29-3-82-5, Mathews 2-0-5-0, Welegedara 8.3-2-34-0, Mendis 14-0-65-0, Dilshan 3-0-12-0.