Sri Lankan batsmen Dimuth Karunaratne (92*) and Kusal Mendis (110) added 191 runs for the second wicket on Day Three of the second Test in Colombo. AP
With the index finger on his lips, Virat Kohli stood bemused at slips. Ravindra Jadeja kicked the ground in angst, the violence swirling a brown plume of dust. The rest of them rambled aimlessly in their assigned nooks of the field. It was the first time in this series that India seemed to hit a roadblock, stuck in the wake of an unseemly Sri Lankan resistance, when it seemed that the visitors would hurtle towards a ripping win before grey clouds engulfed the stadium.
But six over before stumps, Hardik Pandya restored the characteristic verve, stubbing the flickering embers of an improbable draw by dismissing the centurion Kusal Mendis, the latter contriving to drag a cutter to his pads, from where it ricocheted into Wriddhiman’s Saha’s outstretched palms. Even through their 191-run stand, the eventuality of a defeat loomed inevitably, but for nearly two sessions, they had the Indians on tenterhooks. It would still be a Herculean effort for them to escape unscathed, for they are 230 runs adrift, but the pair demonstrated that the talk of Sri Lankan cricket’s demise is grossly exaggerated.
Mendis and Karunaratne were like a pair of comrades fighting a doomed revolution, with only optimism to fuel their fight. Their weapon of ambush was sweep, both the conventional and unorthodox. It challenged conventional wisdom — on a surface with wickedly uneven bounce, it’s suicidal to sweep. A top edge loomed like falcons that hovered over the stadium. But when you are young and brave, you defy conventions, unhinged by consequences.
As early as the second ball of the sixth over, Karunaratne, strong and stocky, sunk on his knees and attempted a reverse sweep. It fluttered of his top-edge over the keeper. Ashwin grimaced, shrugged his head, as if suggesting, “I have your number.” The ball with his number is yet to be stamped, though. A few overs later, he ventured another reverse sweep of a similar delivery. It was a carbon copy, and it fluttered again over the leaping backward short-leg.
A recurring pattern
If the Indians felt that those were just attempts at foiling their line, they were mistaken. It became a recurring pattern, a concerted effort to derail their lengths. A carnage of sweeps, orchestrated by Mendis, short and robust, a physical foil to Karunaratne followed. The same over, he swat-swept Ashwin, the ball screaming through midwicket. That was his peculiarity, he didn’t attempt to sweep fine, which is riskier and less productive. But when you’re sweeping in front of the wicket, a boundary beckons almost always, Also, since you’re expending a lot of power, which Mendis did, even a top-edge might sail over the ropes.
So he would just thrust his front pad, his head steady and outside the line of the ball, and muscle it wherever he chose to. In hindsight, his predilection for the aerial route nullified the risk of a top edge. It’s when a batsman tries to force it on the ground by closing the bat face that it often takes a top edge. Here he was swinging it fluidly, much to the discomfort of the Indian spinners, who felt a a little stirred. It also helped that Mendis is relatively shorter, so that he gets a good balance when he executes the short. “You don’t miss the ball and get out LBW very often playing that shot, if you’re short,” said Ashwin.
Remarkably, Mendis plundered 42 runs off 21 balls with his sweeps. Their frustration only swelled when the occasional delivery fizzed past their outside edge. Not to flinch away from the challenge, the Indian spinners kept varying their length, angle and trajectory, but still couldn’t force a breakthrough. In the bargain, they began to bowl shorter. It relieved Karunaratne, who began to essay the forceful cuts.
Unlike Mendis, Karunaratne swept less frequently, deployed it chiefly as a release shot or to consign the close-in cordon to run-saving positions. As the partnership wore on, he was content playing the second fiddle to Mendis, who though never shirked away from his instincts. He batted with throwback pragmatism. Mendis, fittingly, completed his firebrand hundred with a sweep.
But the trailblazer of the revolution was Niroshan Dickwella, who swept nonchalantly in the first innings before one sweep too many undid him. Consequently, during the innings break, the discussion in the dressing room was all about playing the sweep more often, danger-prone though it is, it offered a sliver of hope, the last strand of ebbing hope. “During the break we had a lengthy chat about playing the spinner and we arrived at a theory that playing sweeps is the best way out of the situation. Risky yes, but rewarding too. It’s also a shot that we’ve practise a lot everyday,” pointed out Dickwella.
It also benefited the Lankan batsmen that the strip had lost much of its vim in the first session. In the morning, the pitch seemed an unforgiving examination chamber, every ball spitting off the surface like a hand-grenade. Ashwin corroborated: “As the ball got older and we bowled the second time around, it is kind of fizzling out and the edges aren’t carrying that much to the fielders.”
In hindsight, Sri Lanka would feel they could’ve batted better in the first dig. For all the viciousness of the strip, there was just one least defendable delivery, which devoured Dhananjay de Silva. The 90kmph-Jadeja ball drifted in and whooshed away marginally to hit his stumps. Dickwella admitted as much. Sometime on the fourth day will beckon his chance to keep fight going, however futile it may seem.