Mahela's magic is only solace

S. DINAKAR

Mahela Jayawardene oozed class.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

MAHELA JAYAWARDENE'S batsmanship is touched by class. And a bit of magic. Years fall away as he strokes the ball languidly. He is a great charmer of the modern era who plays the game the old fashioned way.

The strokes are no more than a caress and the willow no less than a celestial wand when he dismantles attacks. Yes, he is that good.

After the havoc caused by Cyclone Baaz, the Sri Lankan brought with him sunshine at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium. His 80-ball 71 was a fast effort on a slow pitch. An innings that was high on skill on a surface low in bounce.

This is not to belittle Chaminda Vaas's bowling of great precision and craft, adorned with a stunning sequence of 11 maiden overs and four scalps. The wily left-armer is a paceman with a mind that is ticking, and a tally of wickets that is rising; at the last count, he was just two short of 300 Test wickets.

Perhaps, he was the deserving Man of the Match in a Test where heavy downpours and a wet outfield cut into nearly three and a half days of cricket. His subtleties in pace and movement continue to pose searching questions to the batsmen.

The Lankan is adept at operating on the sub-continental pitches, for he knows to attack the stumps, moving some deliveries away, bringing the odd ball back, constantly probing the batsmen while giving little away.

There was some reverse swing too for him in Chennai. The SG ball aids this form of bowling. The Lankans also judged the nature of the surface well, and Kumara Sangakkara was soon standing up to his vice-captain. This was good, thinking cricket.

Vaas was magnificent, but Jayawardene's batting has an ethereal quality about it. It's wrapped in the mystique of the oriental. Great balance, lovely hands and a sense of timing that is breathtaking.

"I played the ball late," said the shy man after his knock. The key to his batting is the quickness with which he judges the length of a delivery and positions himself for the response, which, in his case, is often a delicate one like those delicious late cuts.

On a pitch where most struggled, he was finding the gaps with ridiculous ease. The ease with which he adjusted to the nature of the pitch was indicative of his quality. He was riding on his natural talent.

Chaminda Vaas proved quite a handful as Gautam Gambhir, here, discovers.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

It's a pity that so little play was possible in a Test that should never have been held during this part of the year in Chennai. But in whatever play that was possible, Sri Lanka scored the psychological points.

India, apart from a typically breezy effort from Virender Sehwag and a useful knock by debutant Mahendra Singh Dhoni, failed miserably with the willow. A lowest score of 167 against Sri Lanka in Tests does the side little credit, even if the batsmen could be excused of a certain sluggishness in feet movement after the agonising wait in the team hotel and the dressing room.

The only note of comfort was the fact that the last time they crumbled in a similar fashion — in the Galle Test of 2001 — the Indians were brushed aside by 10 wickets. On this occasion the match, predictably, ended in a deadlock. There was no other way in which a Test of less than two days could have concluded.

The Lankans were pummelled in the ODIs preceding the Tests. The indications are that they would be a different kettle of fish in the Test match arena.

The islanders waltzed past the Indian total. Jayawardene delighted and there were useful contributions from Kumara Sangakkara and Thilan Samaraweera. The contrast in the batting approaches of the two sides was striking.

Plenty of drama preceded the Test with Sourav Ganguly joining the side. The spat between the former Indian captain and coach Greg Chappell has been well documented. During practice ahead of the match, Chappell walked up to Ganguly and offered him technical advice. The ice had been broken and the photographers clicked merrily.

Ganguly did not have a memorable Test himself. He sliced a drive to point early on; minutes before his dismissal a mix-up over a single resulted in V. V. S. Laxman being run-out. The fault lay with both the senior cricketers.

In the brief play that was witnessed, Anil Kumble and Muttiah Muralitharan revelled. Kumble, just two matches away from a hundred Tests, bowled with control in an arena where his footprints are imprinted for eternity.

Muralitharan spun the ball big, like he normally does, and mixed them up wonderfully. "I am a Tamil and we will be playing in Tamil Nadu," he had said before the Test and he forced the batsmen into mistakes as the ball hissed around.

One of his deliveries, a sharp off-spinner, consumed Sachin Tendulkar, searching for his record 35th hundred on the final day. Some of the faithfuls, who had made their way expectantly to the ground anticipating an epic achievement, were quite disappointed.

Anil Kumble posed some problems to the Lankans.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Muralitharan's spin partner for the Test, leg-spinner Malinga Bandara, is someone with potential. The Lankan bowling was keen and eager for most part. And the field placings were innovative.

The surface sported cracks. Since the pitch was covered for long periods of time, the wicket had turned soft, depriving it of bounce. Under sunshine, though, the nature of the track would have been different.

The pitch could have been harder and the fissures could have developed. The Test had interesting possibilities. In the end it was a case of what might have been.

One of the challenges before the BCCI, and its new set of office-bearers, would be to schedule matches during times when the weather is not expected to play up. If matches need to be swapped, they could be. If alterations need to be made in the rotation of matches, they should be done, without the State association having to wait for an eternity for its next chance. The spectators should not be made to suffer.

The M. A. Chidambaram Stadium is an arena that is steeped in history. And the Chennai spectators are among the most discerning in cricket's domain. They surely deserve more than a truncated contest or a fleeting glimpse of the joy Test cricket can bring.