So near, yet so far

SANJAY RAJAN

The triumphant Sri Lankans.-V. V. KRISHNAN

IT boiled down to the last 10 overs. Chasing 282 for victory, India was 209 for four — the same as Sri Lanka — going into the final stretch.

Only, that when the host had scored 72 off the last 60 deliveries, the Men in Blue fell 19 short of the target in the final of the IndianOil Cup tri-series at the R. Premadasa Stadium in Colombo on August 9.

The pressure was still on Sri Lanka at that point, and skipper Marvan Atapattu was also a bowling option short after Sanath Jayasuriya's shoulder injury played up.

It was a test of nerves for Md. Kaif, who, as the senior partner, was expected to shepherd the lower-middle order towards what was an achievable target. The Uttar Pradesh batsman had only three days earlier scored an undefeated 83 against the West Indies in a match where Yuvraj Singh (110) and he staged a remarkable recovery.

This, however, was the true test — one that could have seen him move from the support cast to the lead actor — the kind that coach Greg Chappell describes as `new challenges that will take the team to the next stage'.

It is easy to point to the dismissals of Yuvraj (42) and Rahul Dravid (69) in quick succession as the turning point of the game. That certainly was the case; though, the manner in which the rest — Kaif, Mahendra Dhoni, Irfan Pathan, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Anil Kumble and Ashish Nehra — bungled the chase was startling. Now, we are talking about a combined ODI experience of near 700 matches between the last six players. But they still allowed the pressure to get the better of them.

Mahela Jayawardene was once again in rousing form against the Indians.-V. V. KRISHNAN

Clearly, the presence of two regular batsmen in Mahela Jayawardene and Russel Arnold till the 45th over saw the host handle the final 10 overs in a far assured manner. At the same time one should also not forget that Chaminda Vaas took three boundaries off Nehra in the final over of the innings.

Dravid went into the match one batsman short to accommodate a fifth regular bowler, an option that Sri Lanka used with success in the two previous matches. It was a brave decision, considering that an inconsistent top-order had been a cause for concern through the tournament.

Seven batsmen and four bowlers has been the side's three-year-old mantra, one that took it to the final of the 2003 World Cup. As things turned out, the absence of a regular batsman would show. Moreover, Harbhajan Singh replacing V. V. S. Laxman in the XI meant that India was fielding a two-and-two spin-pace attack, something it hadn't done for some time.

"We've played a lot of finals with a bowler short and ended up giving away too many runs. I backed my batsmen, as each one of us had scored runs at some stage or the other in the tournament. If we could restrict them to a decent score, I thought we could chase successfully. But, Sri Lanka batted well in the middle overs, especially Russel (Arnold) and Mahela (Jayawardene). A wicket there might have restricted the opposition to 250," Dravid said.

Opting to bat, the host was struggling at three for 67, after Nehra sent back opener Marvan Atapattu, Lokuhettige and Kumara Sangakkara. The left-armer finished with six wickets, but his second spell, which came at the `death', would tarnish his final analysis.

The host's innings revolved around Mahela Jayawardene's classy 83. He put on 55 off 77 deliveries with Sanath Jayasuriya (67) for the fourth wicket and then another 125 from 117 deliveries with Arnold (64), which was to be the clincher.

Kumble (none for 64 off 10 overs) and new-ball bowler Irfan Pathan (none for 59 off nine overs) proved ineffective, which forced the skipper to try out Virender Sehwag's off-spin.

Jayasuriya was afforded two reprieves, and the powerful southpaw made good use of it, smashing three boundaries off Kumble to reach his half-century. En route, the Marauder from Matara became only the fourth batsman after Sachin Tendulkar, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Sourav Ganguly to achieve the 10,000-run mark in this form of the game.

Ashish Nehra bagged six wickets, but ended up on the losing side.-V. V. KRISHNAN

Sehwag's blitzkrieg (48, 22b, 9x4, 1x6) provided the team with the right platform — 62 at 10 an over — thus reducing the target to an achievable one. The man from Najafgarh, however, had to stay longer. But the wily paceman Chaminda Vaas made him play-on.

The blinding start was proving to be a cushion, as Dravid, walking in at No. 3, proceeded to take control. The captain (69) and Sourav Ganguly saw India reach the 100-run mark by the 16th over.

"We knew India would come back hard at us in the first 15 overs. We held our nerves and were patient. Although Loku (Dilhara Lokuhettige) was hit for 26 runs by Sehwag in one over, he came back well in his second spell after Vaas got Sehwag," said Atapattu.

"I was a bit concerned to have lost Sanath (Jayasuriya) after bowling just one delivery, but I had a couple of options. Upul (Chandana) put his hand up and did a tremendous job. (Tillekeratne) Dilshan also did a good job. We held Muralitharan back for the last overs. At this venue it is not easy to get runs against spinners towards the end," Atapattu added.

Dravid and Yuvraj Singh kept India in the race with an 84-run stand off 116 deliveries, before the latter was dismissed sweeping at leg-spinner Chandana to be caught at deep square-leg, and the skipper was run out with the side needing a still-manageable 77 off 67 deliveries.

"We left a bit too much for the lower order, we needed to carry on for another six-seven overs. The Sri Lankans understand their conditions very well, not many can beat them here," said Dravid.

"They are the No. 2 one-day side in the world, so they have been winning consistently, something we have not been doing for the last 14-16 months. When you get yourself in the position to win, sometimes you need that extra bit of confidence to do that," he said.

Jayawardene was adjudged both Man of the Match and Man of the Series.

The scores

Sri Lanka: M. Atapattu b Nehra 11, S. Jayasuriya (run out) 67, D. Lokuhettige lbw b Nehra 9, K. Sangakkara c Sehwag b Nehra 8, M. Jayawardene c Kaif b Nehra 83, R. Arnold (run out) 64, T. Dilshan b Nehra 7, C. Vaas (not out) 18, U. Chandana c Harbhajan b Nehra 2, M. Muralitharan (run out) 0; Extras (lb-2, nb-2, w-8) 12. Total (for nine wkts, 50 overs) 281.

Fall of wickets: 1-32, 2-46, 3-67, 4-122, 5-247, 6-257, 7-262, 8-268, 9-281.

India bowling: Pathan 9-0-59-0, Zaheer 9-1-43-0, Nehra 10-1-59-6, Harbhajan 10-0-40-0, Kumble 10-0-64-0, Sehwag 2-0-14-0.

India: S. Ganguly lbw b Dilshan 26, V. Sehwag b Vaas 48, R. Dravid (run out) 69, Yuvraj Singh c Lokuhettige b Chandana 42, M. Kaif c Atapattu b Vaas 31, M. Dhoni lbw b Chandana 7, I. Pathan b Muralitharan 1, Harbhajan (run out) 0, Zaheer c (sub) Tharanga b Muralitharan 5, A. Kumble (not out) 9, A. Nehra (not out) 9; Extras (b-7, lb-1, nb-1, w-7) 16. Total (for nine wkts, 50 overs) 263.

Fall of wickets: 1-62, 2-102, 3-186, 4-205, 5-216, 6-219, 7-223, 8-229, 9-246.

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 10-1-38-2, Mahroof 6-0-48-0, Lokuhettige 5-0-41-0, Dilshan 7-0-42-1, Muralitharan 10-0-35-2, Jayasuriya 0.1-0-1-0, Chandana 9.5-0-38-2, Arnold 2-0-12-0.