The hunter became the hunted on a Friday of astonishing turnarounds. Fascinating Test cricket of several hues was on view at the P. Saravanamuttu Stadium. The third Test appeared heading towards a fourth day finish when India had Sri Lanka on the mat at 125 for eight before lunch. Then, an 118-run ninth-wicket partnership between Thilan Samaraweera (83) and No. 10 Ajantha Mendis (78) enabled the host script a stirring fightback. The match turned on its head.
Set a target of 257 on a pitch that appeared to have eased out after lunch, India was reduced to 53 for three. Lanky off-spinner Suraj Randiv, harnessing the angles, struck thrice. The top-ranked Test side lacked aggression and killer instinct. Yet, given the fortune swings in this Test, the match is by no means over.
Sri Lanka, though, holds the aces going into the final day. Much of the Indian hopes hinge on Sachin Tendulkar (11 batting). Sri Lanka was spot on when Randiv shared the new ball with Lasith Malinga. The strategy worked.
Operating from round the wicket, Randiv got his delivery to straighten at Sehwag. The opener, playing for turn, edged to Mahela Jayawardene at slip. The influential Sehwag departed for a naught.
Dravid fails again
Rahul Dravid, seeking form, played back to a delivery from Randiv and, to his horror, saw the ball rolling on to his stumps. The tall off-spinner's extra bounce and over-spin contributed to the dismissal.
Opener Murali Vijay, who coped well with Lasith Malinga's short-pitched fliers, attempted to turn Randiv and was picked up by Mahela at backward short-leg. There were doubts whether the catch was held cleanly and the decision was referred. Vijay was ruled out; the television replays seemed inclusive.
In the afternoon, India let Sri Lanka off the hook. In fact, the side seemed to run out of ideas and had to rely on the second new ball - Samaraweera edged an attempted hook off Abhimanyu Mithun to the 'keeper – to break the ninth-wicket partnership.
The Indian bowlers, including the spinners, have struggled with the kookaburra ball after the first 35 or 40 overs. While the seam thinning out is often cited as a reason, teams around the world have operated with greater success with this ball even in the latter stages.
Imparting serious revolutions on the ball does not always depend on the seam for a spinner. Ingredients such as the use off the crease and changes in trajectory can make a difference.
Samaraweera and Mendis made the Indian bowlers pay. An elegant, composed batsman with loads of time to play the ball, Samaraweera oozed class in the middle. Importantly, he was decisive with his feet movement. He went right forward in defence or offence if the delivery demanded front-foot play, also jumped down to get to the pitch of the ball and played off his back-foot with ease and timing. Revelling in a pressure situation, he drove, cut and swept with the flow of a natural.
Mendis, often encouraged by Samaraweera, batted with heart and commitment. He also displayed a copy book forward defensive stroke. Yet, this was not an innings of dour defence alone. Mendis swept left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha for a six, and square-cut and upper-cut Ishant Sharma with panache. Mendis reached his first half-century in Tests with a firm lofted stroke over cover off Ojha. The crowd roared in appreciation.
He dominated the strike after the departure of Samaraweera and waded into Ishant. Mendis was finally dismissed when he drove leg-spinner Amit Mishra hard into the hands of Suresh Raina at covers.
India desperately missed greater firepower in its pace attack and more imagination in the spin department. Ishant sent down a barrage of short-pitched deliveries but forgot the yorker. It's a potent mix of the lifting deliveries with the toe-crushers that often takes out the tailenders. Mithun needs to up his speed.
India made deep inroads in the morning. Night-watchman Randiv, reprieved by 'keeper Mahendra Singh Dhoni off Ojha, was prised out soon by the left-arm spinner.
Ojha then dismissed the accomplished Mahela Jayawardene with a lovely flighted delivery around the off stump. The length drew Mahela forward and the turn found the edge.
This has been a Test where subtle changes in the field have worked against Sangakkara. Dhoni, initially, had a fielder to the right of the square-leg umpire. He, then, moved him to the left of the umpire. The left hander pulled a short of a length delivery from Ojha and Raina held a smart catch at square-leg.
Sri Lanka continued to slide. Angelo Mathews flicked a low full toss from Mishra straight to the fielder at mid wicket. The leg-spinner, soon, trapped Prasanna Jayawardene with a delivery that pitched on leg and held its line. Not much later, Sehwag removed Lasith Malinga with an off-spinner. Then, the Indian bowlers lost the plot.
Keywords: India-Sri Lanka Test series