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All eyes on Saravanamuttu

S. Dinakar
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Cricket / Indians looking to Sehwag again

Belligerent: Virender Sehwag may not switch to defensive play when needed, but his style has the potential to change matches. — Photo: AFP
Belligerent: Virender Sehwag may not switch to defensive play when needed, but his style has the potential to change matches. — Photo: AFP

The focus now shifts to the P. Saravanamuttu Stadium for the third Test. This charming ground is steeped in history — the portrait at the pavilion reminds one that the incomparable Don Bradman once made a rare sub-continental appearance here.

Indeed, the arena bears the immortal, but invisible, footsteps of the greatest batsman in cricketing history. The mists of time have not been able to cloud the deeds of several legends at this venue.

Both India and Sri Lanka will not be short of inspiration when the third and final Test gets underway on August 3. The host leads the series 1-0.

‘Result-oriented pitch'

The pitch here, from all accounts, should offer more to the bowlers than the barren surface at the SSC.

“It's a result-oriented pitch,” said former Sri Lankan batting ace Anura Tennekoon on Saturday.

India would be hoping that Mahendra Singh Dhoni, finally, gets the toss right. It's a huge advantage in these conditions to bat first, put up a big score, and then apply pressure on the opposition as the pitch encourages spin in the latter half of the match.

Given the limitations of its attack, this perhaps, is India's best chance to level the series.

The Indians will require the irrepressible Virender Sehwag to set the tempo. The belligerent right-hander tops the batting averages in Asia — he has 4,983 runs in 51 Tests at 61.51. This is a laudable achievement considering Sehwag does not grind out attacks to construct big scores.

The 63-year-old Tennekoon, manager of the Sri Lanka ‘A' team, is fascinated by Sehwag's approach to the game.

“He puts pressure on the bowlers from the word go. The bowlers are forced to change their gameplan. Sehwag plays his first ball and the last ball with the same mind-set.”

Tennekoon missed out on Tests since Sri Lanka had not been admitted to the Test fold in his playing days.

A stroke-maker of the highest order, he figured in just four ODIs for Sri Lanka — in the 1975 and '79 World Cups in England — scoring 137 runs at 34.25.

Elaborating on Sehwag's game, Tennekoon said, “What stands out in his batting is how early he sees the ball. Then, he has got tremendous hand-eye coordination. He can change the course of matches so easily.”

The Sri Lankan attack has suffered under Sehwag's bludgeoning blade. In 10 Tests against Sri Lanka, Sehwag has whipped up 1,130 runs at a sensational average of 75.33. And in his five Tests in Sri Lanka, Sehwag has plundered 583 runs at a whopping 72.87. His double century at Galle, 2008, against Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis is rated among the greatest innings in Tests by an Indian.

He speeds ahead like a runaway train. There have been occasions, such as moments after his hundred in the first Test of the on-going series and on 99 in the second Test, when one felt he should temper his aggression. But then, a Sehwag who plays percentage cricket is no Sehwag at all.

In fact, former India coach John Wright confided to this writer once, “There are times when you want to send him a message. Then you hold yourself back fearing he might lose his precious ability.”

Harbhajan's woes

While Sehwag has been an astonishing success story against the Sri Lankans, India's spin spearhead Harbhajan Singh has found life a lot harder.

In this series, Harbhajan has figures of 0-98 and 0-24 (at Galle) and 1-147 and 1-35 (at SSC).

The pitch did favour the batsmen in the second Test, but Harbhajan was unable to beat the men facing him with dip in flight or work on their patience with a consistent line and length. One also got the impression that he was not harnessing the angles like a vastly experienced bowler should. Indeed, Harbhajan appeared predictable.

Tennekoon said, “Most good bowlers go through phases when they are struggling for rhythm and control. It has been happening to Harbhajan in this series. I am sure he can come out of it.”

The former Sri Lanka captain also wants tracks for Test cricket to be sporting. “There should be assistance for the pacemen initially. Then, the pitch should help the spinners from the third day onwards. I believe that good and consistent bounce is a must.”

The Sri Lankan attack should certainly have more firepower in the third Test. Lasith Malinga should be back.

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