Lankans salvage some pride

S. DINAKAR

Tillekeratne Dilshan (right), along with Russel Arnold, took Sri Lanka to a face-saving victory.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

THE crowd began to melt away even before the winning blow was struck. Its intense disappointment of not witnessing Sachin Tendulkar in action was accentuated by the fact that the Sri Lankans were now at the doorstep of a face-saving victory.

This was a night when the visitors salvaged some pride. Tillekeratne Dilshan and Russell Arnold swung the game in their side's favour with some bold strokeplay just when Sri Lanka appeared hurtling towards yet another defeat.

The islanders were home with 14 balls and five wickets to spare.

Despite the setback, India made a definite gain from the match. Opener Gautam Gambhir's hundred meant the Men in Blue now had another viable option at the top of the order.

Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid... centuries in vain.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

The host had already grabbed a 4-0 lead in the seven-match Videocon series. The logic behind resting Tendulkar, Irfan Pathan and Harbhajan Singh for the game cannot be faulted.

As coach Greg Chappell correctly pointed out in the post match conference, India had to test the youngsters in the heat of the battle. If World Cup 2007 is the guiding factor, then India needs to show vision. The youngsters have to be given a fling. "We have no other choice," said Chappell.

Had Tendulkar figured in this dead rubber game, Gambhir would have been catching action from the dressing room. Now he was a batsman with a maiden ODI hundred behind him. The difference in his confidence levels would be enormous.

That skipper Rahul Dravid guided him through the 128-run partnership for the fourth wicket worked in Gambhir's favour. The captain was quick to applaud Gambhir's strokes and embraced him when the left-hander reached his century.

Dravid himself made a quality hundred, but he would have been happier about a youngster getting to the landmark — from the team's long-term perspective, Gambhir's effort was important.

"It's not easy to come off the bench and play an innings like that," said Chappell about the Delhi left-hander's strokeful innings. Gambhir deserved these words of appreciation. Even when wickets tumbled early at the other end, he kept his rhythm going.

It was a less successful outing for rookie pacemen S. Sreesanth and R. P. Singh. On a Motera Stadium pitch that held little for the bowlers, they needed to sacrifice pace for accuracy. They will learn.

For the Lankans, Ahmedabad ended a nightmarish sequence of defeats. The islanders had dished out better cricket after the first two games; now they had a victory to show for their improvement. The win might have arrived late in the context of the series, but it was not without importance for a side that seemed to have forgotten how to close out games.

And the side clinched it through some brilliant strokeplay. Dilshan (81 not out off 67 balls) can bat with flair as he showed the Sunday crowd at the Sardar Patel Gujarat Stadium. He is a spunky cricketer and likes the sniff of a combat.

Dilshan is a quick thinking batsman with a repertoire of strokes that cannot be scoffed at. He used his feet well to convert the length of the ball to his advantage.

The left-handed Russell Arnold has been through some trying times over the last few years. Considered among the finest `finishers' not too long ago, Arnold found himself in the cold, undone by a streak of inconsistency in his form.

He is back in favour these days. Although he began the series on a disappointing note with the willow, the team management has stood by him; coach Tom Moody did give individual attention to the left-hander at the nets.

The Indian bowlers had made major inroads when Arnold joined Dilshan at 155 for five. Ajit Agarkar delivered a probing first spell where he had Sanath Jayasuriya edging one to the slips with a peach of a delivery that angled away from the left-hander.

The Indian fielding was sharp. To the great delight of the crowd a searing direct hit from Jai Prakash Yadav sent back Mahela Jayawardene. But this was a night when the Indians had to keep striking. As Chappell admitted, India was at least 20 runs short on a surface where a 300-plus score was always on the cards. If a partnership developed, then Sri Lanka had a reasonable chance of bouncing back.

Dilshan and Arnold (49 off 47) orchestrated the Sri Lankan fightback. The conditions were not easy for the bowlers. The pitch was placid, the outfield fast, and because of the dew, gripping the white ball was not the easiest of tasks. Under the circumstances, left-arm spinner Murali Kartik sent down a steady spell, but India missed a second specialist spinner.

India was handicapped by the absence of skipper Rahul Dravid who had to leave the field in the early stages of the Lankan innings due to cramps. It would not have been easy for Virender Sehwag to mentally get tuned to the demands of managing the overs and the field settings at a short notice; the side had to adapt to his methods as well.

In the afternoon, Gambhir dazzled. The Delhi left-hander is a much-improved batsman. While his game has become tighter — he had a tendency to play away from the body outside the off-stump in his initial days with the Indian team — he has retained his flamboyance and natural aggression.

Gambhir and Dravid added 128 for the fourth wicket in just 147 balls. The Indian captain stroked on both sides of the wicket. He was elegant and found the gaps. When Dravid kept his date with the three-figure mark, he raised his arms in the manner of a conqueror.

Still the Indian innings was undone by two factors. The continuing indifferent form of Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh, both influential batsmen otherwise, meant the side could not gain early momentum.

Then, just when India was eyeing a 300-plus score, Sri Lanka's Super Substitute Fervez Maharoof produced a key spell. He dismissed Gambhir and sent back three more batsmen in a match-turning burst of four for 20 in five overs. He is not the quickest of bowlers but operates stump to stump and achieves enough movement to trouble the batsmen.

In the event, Marvan Atapattu's decision to chase proved right. A target of 286 was eminently gettable. You rarely come across such sleeping beauties as the pitch at the Motera Stadium.

The scores

India v Sri Lanka, 6th ODI, Rajkot, November 9, 2005. India won by seven wickets. Man of the Match: R. P. Singh.

Sri Lanka: W. U. Tharanga c Dhoni b Singh 28; S. Jayasuriya c Dhoni b Santh 19; K. Sangakkara c Tendulkar b Pathan 9; M. Jayawardene st. Dhoni b Kartik 14; M. Atapattu c Sehwag b Singh 9; T. Dilshan (run out) 59; R. Arnold (run out) 8; C. Vaas b Kartik 9; U. Chandana b Singh 30; M. F. Maharoof c Kaif b Singh 4; D. Fernando (not out) 4; Extras (w-2, nb-1) 3. Total (in 42.5 overs) 196.

Fall of wickets: 1-44, 2-56, 3-57, 4-79, 5-83, 6-118, 7-132, 8-161, 9-182.

India bowling: Pathan 7-0-31-1; Santh 8-0-50-1; Singh 8.5-2-35-4; Kartik 10-1-42-2; Harbhajan 9-1-38-0.

India: G. Gambhir b Fernando 28; S. Tendulkar c Maharoof b Fernando 19; V. Sehwag c Dilshan b Chandana 22; M. Kaif (not out) 38; Yuvraj Singh (not out) 79; Extras (w-3, nb-8) 11. Total (for three wkts. in 34.5 overs) 197.

Fall of wickets: 1-43, 2-57, 3-92.

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 7-0-38-0; Fernando 10-1-58-2; Maharoof 4-0-24-0; Jayasuriya 3.5-0-22-0; Chandana 5-0-32-1; Dilshan 5-0-23-0.

Sri Lanka full substitute: M. F. Maharoof (N. Zoysa, Sri Lanka innings, 36.1 ov).

India full substitute: S. K. Raina (M. Kartik, Sri Lanka innings, 36.1 ov).