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India groping in the dark after initial promise

By S. Dinakar

COLOMBO, SEPT. 1. With dark clouds on the horizon it threatened to rain the whole day, it didn't. The Indian batsmen, after a healthy beginning, seemed all set to wage a spirited resistance, they eventually didn't. Succumb to Test match pressure once more, the middle-order certainly did.

The story of the day in a nutshell.

When the dust settled at the Sinhalese Sports Club Stadium after an eventful fourth day of the final Test, here on Saturday, India was on the brink of a series setback against Sri Lanka, tottering at 217 for six, still 159 runs away from avoiding an innings defeat.

And one witnessed an all too familiar story in the series yet again, the Indian innings coming apart after a solid opening stand, openers Sadagopan Ramesh and Shiv Sundar Das providing the team with a lovely platform raising 107 in 42.1 overs.

Off-spin wizard Muttiah Muralitharan scalped his 10th batsman of the Test, with a beast of a delivery that pitched a shade out- side the leg-stump of the left-handed Ramesh and then spun and bounced wickedly to clip the off bail. Easily the ball of the day, but the turning point of the innings came in the form of a run-out.

Indeed, there were definite visions of a fightback when skipper Sourav Ganguly and vice-captain Rahul Dravid, the key man really, walked out after tea, the Indian score reading 169 for two. Then, things started to go horribly wrong.

Dravid (36, 152m, 124b, 4x4), batting with typical solidity, on- drove Muralitharan and ran with the stroke. The ball travelled to Marvan Atapattu at mid-on, who fired in a direct hit to the non- striker's end, with Dravid's bat still on the line. Third umpire Mr. T. Wijewardene pressed the red button.

With that India's chances of salvaging a draw received a body blow. Saving a Test, when the close-in cordon is in place, vociferous appeals abound and a master craftsman like Muttiah Muralitharan is in operation, is all about ticking off balls, overs, sessions, and finally days.

Dravid alone in this line-up possesses the mental fortitude for the task, not to speak of his technical excellence. The jubilation in the Lankan camp following the strike reflected the importance of the Karnataka batsman's scalp.

Mohammed Kaif, fighting to save his place, needed a big innings, but was a victim of Ganguly's indecisiveness, after the captain played debutant off-spinner Thilan Samaraweera well short of square. Ganguly, wanted a single, then had a change of mind, sent a rapidly advancing Kaif back, but before the young batsman could regain lost ground, wicketkeeper Kumara Sangakkara, who swooped in on the ball, combined with bowler Samaraweera to effect another run-out. It was a close thing with Kaif making a last ditch dive, but attempting risky singles in a Test, when the need of the hour is to preserve wickets, was baffling.

Ganguly (30, 103, 2x4, 1x6) battled hard for 148 minutes, and in a rare moment of belligerence, even went down the track and struck Muralitharan for a straight six, however, he was done in by a beautifully bowled off-break from debutant Samaraweera that drew him into a stroke, took the outside edge and Jayawardene did the rest at slip.

Introduced into the attack after Muralitharan had completed a teasing spell of 29-12-33-2 from the press box end, Samaraweera, never reluctant to give the ball air, drifted his deliveries away from the left-handers, and made a distinct impression.

India lost its sixth wicket 28 minutes before close, when the left-handed Sairaj Bahutule, earning a promotion ahead of Sameer Dighe, padded up to a delivery spinning into him from left-arm spinner Jayasuriya, and the ball after striking the pad, rolled on to the stumps.

At close, Hemang Badani (8), the last of the specialist batsmen, and Dighe (4), were at the crease, and the road ahead is treacherous even if the wicket is still batsmen friendly.

A sound start

The role of the openers is a double natured one. Seeing off the new ball, taking away the early sting in the attack, making it easier for the others - this is the first phase of the job. Then, they have to consolidate on the beginning. In this series, Ramesh and Das have performed the first part of the job adequately and for once no one can blame the openers.

On Saturday morning, Das began by punching paceman Dulip Liyanage to the point fence off the back-foot and then essayed some lovely strokes off Muralitharan, coaxing him through the covers, dancing down the track to drive the off-spinner straight down the ground, and laying back and cutting him - not the easiest shots to play against Murali - past the ropes.

However, the Orissa batsman was lucky to survive at 45, when he attempted to sweep Muralitharan, under-edged the ball on to his boot, and the `catch' was held by a diving Jayasuriya at short- mid wicket. The Lankans appealed vociferously, but umpire Asoka de Silva ruled in favour of the batsman. Das soon completed his second half-century of the match (109b, 8x4), cracking Fernando square of the wicket.

Ramesh, always strong off his legs, punished the Lankan pacemen when they erred in line, and Chaminda Vaas and Fernando found this out the hard way with the ball streaking to the fence. The Tamil Nadu batsman also displayed a pleasingly straight blade and, intelligently, decided to play second fiddle, with Das in a more punishing mood at the other end.

In the event, Muralitharan's first spell, from the Tennis Court end of 5-1-0-22, the same end from where he caused such destruction in the first innings, was not fruitful, and this represented a minor psychological victory for the Indians.

The openers saw off the crucial first hour safely, the 50-run mark was reached in 21 overs, and the 100 arrived in 33.1, with Das, in particular, producing a series of scintillating strokes.

The openers, who had raised 97 in the first essay, had put on 107 in the second, when Muralitharan, operating from the press box end this time, consumed Das, the batsman moving forward, the ball nicking his left-pad, then glove, and a diving Hashan Tillekeratne at silly point picking up a sharp catch.

Lunch was just five minutes away, but there was time enough for the classy Dravid to complete his 4000 runs in Test cricket, with his first scoring stroke, off Muralitharan. The Karnataka batsman reached the milestone in just his 48th Test, at a stunning average of 54.26. A fitting reward for a committed performer, under all conditions.

Muralitharan got the ball to buzz around after the break and Sadagopan Ramesh had to answer some searching questions from the off-spin wizard, who was spinning the ball away from the southpaw as well as straightening it into him.

However, Ramesh soon got to his half-century (154b, 223m, 3x4), flicked Chaminda Vaas to the square-leg fence, and looked good for more. Muralitharan had other ideas though.

Well begun is half done, they say, but it was yet another day of unfulfilled promises for Sourav Ganguly's men. Unless the weather gods intervene, there should be no comebacks for the Indians.


INDIA - 1st innings: 234

SRI LANKA - 1st innings: 610 for six decl.

INDIA - 2nd innings:

S. S. Das c Tillekeratne b Muralitharan 68 (165m, 161b, 11x4) S. Ramesh b Muralitharan 55 (229m, 165b, 4x4)

R. Dravid (run out) 36 (152m, 124b, 4x4) S. Ganguly c Jayawardene b Samaraweera 30 (148m, 103b, 2x4, 1x6) M. Kaif (run out) 5 (31m, 29b) H. Badani (batting) 8 (60m, 53b, 1x4) S. Bahutule b Jayasuriya 0 (4m, 2b) S. Dighe (batting) 4 (27m, 24b) Extras (lb-1, nb-8, w-2) 11 --- Total (for six wkts.) 217 ---

Fall of wickets: 1-107 (Das), 2-147 (Ramesh), 3-186 (Dravid), 4- 196 (Kaif), 5-210 (Ganguly), 6-211 (Bahutule).

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 19-7-41-0 (nb-2), Fernando 17- 3-59-0 (w- 1, nb-3), Muralitharan 39-15-60-2 (nb-2), Jayasuriya 21-10-34-1, Liyanage 5-0-12-0, Samaraweera 8-4-10-1 (w-1, nb-1).

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