Youngsters script a rousing finish

S. DINAKAR

The valiant Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Suresh Raina return after conquering Sri Lanka.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

MORE than the victory itself, it was heartening for India that two youngsters held their nerve in a tense situation and saw the team through. When Suresh Raina joined Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Indians were in trouble at 180 for six. The target — 262 — appeared distant. In the past, the Sri Lankans have sunk India in similar situations.

Dhoni was in blazing form. Would he receive support at the other end? Raina faced searching questions on temperament. Plenty was at stake for both teams.

In the event, the left-handed Raina displayed composure and flair. Dhoni settled the issue with successive blows over the long on and the mid-wicket ropes. As many as 26 deliveries remained in the contest. What a way to clinch a series! What a response from India's younger crop!

Skipper Rahul Dravid was a delighted man. "They (Dhoni and Raina) have hardly played 10 matches together, yet came up with a partnership like that. In the last two matches, the youngsters have performed and taken the side to a win. The future of the game in the country is quite exciting."

Indeed, Dhoni and Raina delight and thrill. The belligerent wicket-keeper batsman had dismantled the Lankan attack in Jaipur. That was at the No. 3 slot. Now, he walked in at No. 6 and stayed till the finish.

Raina is a fluent shot-maker, who can disrupt the rhythm of a bowler. He is also a busy run-getter who works the ball into the empty spaces for the ones and the twos. His unbeaten 39 consumed only 30 balls, but had no more than two boundaries.

Ajit Agarkar lets out a war cry after trapping Kumara Sangakkara leg before.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

The islanders were expected to breast the tape comfortably. The pre-series predictions favouring Lanka were not without reasons.

The Sri Lankans were the second ranked side in the ODIs. The Indians were way behind in the seventh position. The islanders were a settled unit under a long-standing captain in Marvan Atapattu. In contrast, Indian cricket was recovering from the Greg Chappell-Sourav Ganguly spat. There were doubts whether the off-the-field events had distracted the Indians from their main job — performance in the arena. Could India pull together as a team?

Dravid being at the helm must have been a comforting thought for the host though. He could be the calming influence the side required in times of distress.

In the last two ODI series that India had taken part in this season, it had stumbled on the final hurdle, the Sri Lankans being one of them. With Mohammed Kaif recovering from an injury and Sourav Ganguly omitted for lack of form and fitness, the Indian middle order was lacking in experience too.

Sri Lankan skipper Marvan Atapattu struck form, but his team couldn't post a competitive enough total.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

The super-substitute rule has been a big positive for India here. It has provided the Indian batting with the much-needed depth and balance — the extra batsman in Raina was crucial for the side in Pune. However, Sri Lanka, which lost the toss, could not fit in its extra man Thilan Samaraweera into the XI. Since the Lankans were put in, the team-management could ill afford to remove one of their specialist bowlers for Samaraweera since the side would be defending a target. Samaraweera, these days, is essentially a batsman who sends down occasional off-spin.

The series saw Dravid growing from a captain to a leader of men. In its skipper, India has found an inspirational figure. Sachin Tendulkar's return was a great morale booster for the Indian camp; the maestro's on-field enthusiasm reflected his joy for the game. In a famous triumph, both the young and the experienced played a role. If Dhoni and Raina were the cubs that growled, someone like Ajit Agarkar showed there was some more cricket left in him.

The Mumbaikar is an enigma, brilliant one moment, erratic the next. When the team-management backed him, handing him the new ball, his motivational levels soared. After India won a crucial toss in Pune and inserted the Lankans, Agarkar gained appreciable away movement. When he strikes rhythm — this hinges on his confidence levels — Agarkar is arguably the finest outswing bowler in the land.

Agarkar struck with both the new and the old ball, to finish with the second five-wicket haul of a rollercoaster ODI career. Here, he bowled with zest, moved the ball around. His major test lies in sustaining this form.

There was early assistance for the pacemen and Agarkar was the pick. So impressed was Dravid, that soon a slip cordon was in place. This was good, attacking captaincy.

The in-form Kumara Sangakkara and the out of touch Sanath Jayasuriya were prised out by Agarkar. As the innings progressed, Sreesanth showed glimpses of his speed, while the rejuvenated Harbhajan continued to bowl impressively.

Skipper Marvan Atapattu, who had pushed himself down to the No. 5 slot, stroked the ball pleasingly during his 100-ball 87. There were useful supporting hands from Tillekeratne Dilshan (52) and Russell Arnold (32). Irfan Pathan unleashed a mean yorker to remove Arnold and with Agarkar bowling a full length and hitting the stumps, the Lankans finished at least 20 runs short of a competitive score.

The visitors gained unexpected success initially when India pursued. Tendulkar unwisely decided to give Vaas the charge. Yuvraj failed to make his presence felt at No. 3; his cut off Nuwan Zoysa was caught smartly by Dilshan at point. Sehwag was put down at deep mid on with the Indian score on 50, and later Atapattu said this lapse was a turning point in the game.

Muttiah Muralitharan did his reputation no harm by capturing three wickets. Here he is not able to hold on to a return catch offered by Raina.-AP

Eventually, Sehwag's 48 was a valuable effort. Dravid's well-paced 63 was a captain's innings, surfacing at a time when the middle-order needed to contribute. With Muttiah Muralitharan getting the ball to hiss and spin, Sri Lanka roared back to life. Then it ran into Dhoni and Raina.

Atapattu's captaincy was baffling. Vaas ended the game with four of his overs not utilised and Muralitharan was taken off the attack when Dhoni and Raina were not quite picking his variety of deliveries. When the team confidence is down, captains can blunder too.

For his opposite number, Rahul Dravid, the four matches marked a perfect beginning to his tenure as the skipper. He had his finger on the pulse of the team all through.

The scores

India v Sri Lanka, 4th ODI, Pune, November 3, 2005. India won by four wickets. Man of the Match: A. B. Agarkar.

Sri Lanka: K. Sangakkara lbw b Agarkar 8; S. Jayasuriya lbw b Agarkar 16; W. U. Tharanga c Agarkar b Santh 21; T. Dilshan c Tendulkar b Harbhajan 52; M. Atapattu c & b Sehwag 87; R. Arnold b Pathan 32; M. F. Maharoof b Agarkar 3; C. Vaas c Dhoni b Agarkar 11; M. Muralitharan b Agarkar 9; N. Zoysa (run out) 2; D. Fernando (not out) 0; Extras (lb-11, w-9) 20. Total (in 49.5 overs) 261.

Fall of wickets: 1-17, 2-36, 3-51, 4-148, 5-231, 6-237, 7-241, 8-252, 9-261.

India bowling: Pathan 9-0-49-1; Agarkar 9.5-1-44-5; Santh 8-2-49-1; Yadav 4-0-23-0; Harbhajan 10-0-35-1; Yuvraj 2-0-14-0; Sehwag 7-0-36-1.

India: V. Sehwag c Arnold b Muralitharan 48; S. Tendulkar b Vaas 11; Yuvraj c Dilshan b Zoysa 10; R. Dravid c Vaas b Fernando 63; Y. Venugopal Rao c Sangakkara b Muralitharan 38; M. S. Dhoni (not out) 45; I. K. Pathan c Sangakkara b Muralitharan 0; S. K. Raina (not out) 39; Extras (lb-2, w-4, nb-2) 8. Total (for six wkts. in 45.4 overs) 262.

Fall of wickets: 1-23, 2-34, 3-112, 4-176, 5-180, 6-180.

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 6-1-28-1; Fernando 9-1-43-1; Zoysa 8-0-47-1; Maharoof 4-0-41-0; Muralitharan 9-0-35-3; Jayasuriya 3-0-18-0; Dilshan 5-0-28-0; Arnold 1.4-0-20-0.

Sri Lanka full substitute: T. T. Samaraweera (unused).

India full substitute: S. K. Raina (S. Santh, India innings, 0.0 ov).