KL Rahul reacts after being dismissed for 85 on Day 1 of the third Test. He was associated in a 188-run opening stand with Dhawan. (Source: PTI photo)
For the first time in the series, Sri Lanka showed some spine. They seemed down and out after the Indian openers racked up 188 but fought back from the brink, outdoing India’s aggression with their own aggression. India were restricted to their lowest first-day total in the series—329 for 6 wickets, the corresponding numbers were 393/3 in Galle and 343/3 in Colombo. It might seem a touch odd to talk up a team when their opponents aren’t exactly in an unhappy situation – with Wriddhiman Saha in, India could still go over 400 – but the Sri Lankan fight back was heartwarming. After all, who likes a one-sided contest?
Virat Kohli, the man who wouldn’t have minded another tame Sri Lankan surrender, found himself in tough situation for the first time in the series. It still wasn’t a full-blown crisis, or an emergency—India had netted 270-odd runs for the loss of four wickets—but Kohli was on the receiving end as the Sri Lankans were ratcheting up the pressure.
He embraced the middle-over ODI mode, tapping a single here, tickling a double here and shelving the expansive drives, a couple of which he had authored before the late afternoon implosion. But his restraint against natural urge to attack left him often double-minded — to play or not to play his strokes. Alternating between good-and-full lengths, Malinda Pushpakumara and Lakshan Sandakan tempted Kohli to drive more often. Kohli, ever the shrewd batsman, second-guessed the intentions and defiantly blocked them out. But eventually, the temptation become too irrepressible that he was sucked into driving a good-length ball. The half-hearted attempt, the feet not quite reaching to the pitch of the ball, squirmed off his edge to the first slip. Sandakan was swooped by his teammates, even as Kohli dragged back, cussing himself.
His exit boosted Sri Lanka whose hope of pinning India down to a competitive than formidable tally, as it had been in the last two Tests, only furthered when Lahiru Kumara nabbed Ravichandran Ashwin towards the fag end. Such a spirit-crushing prospect loomed for the hosts when KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan were strumming at nearly five an over before a couple of spellbinding catches, underpinned by astute bowling, reversed the momentum. It came without any warning. Sri Lanka, who had been largely listless on the field, squandering chances and leaking boundaries more frequently than a ruptured PVC pipe, were inspired by two breathtaking catches. Dimuth Karunaratne craned skywards to intersect a boundary-bound loft of Rahul at mid-on.
A few overs later, Chandimal plucked a fiercely-struck but airborne sweep of centurion Dhawan, thus arresting the seething momentum India had gathered. Their bowlers too were impressively proactive. Unlike in SSC and Galle, where they would panic and adopt restrictive methods when they’re hit for a few boundaries, here they encouraged India to play their strokes, because they sensed that’s the best way of bargaining a few wickets. Even as Dhawan and Rahul motored along briskly, they kept bowling full. Sensing Rahul would step out, Pushpakumara pushed one onto his body, impeding the bat flow, and Rahul holed up at mid-on.
Similarly, Dhawan was provided the luxury to sweep, though on a surface without much bounce it was risk-fraught. To his credit, he mostly swept along the ground, but one stroke of indiscretion failed him. The captain stationed himself at square-leg for the false shot, and though it wasn’t a miscued hit, Chandimal’s lighting reflexes ensured that he pocketed it.
Change in tactics
They changed their tactics against Cheteshwar Pujara, who is infallible when he meets the ball on the full. And so they began bowling short of good length to him. Though Pujara by no means is a daft cutter, there was a slight risk when trying to force that shot, especially as Sandakan was armed with a lethal googly, which is difficult to pick when the batsman is new at the crease. It manifested in his dismissal. Pujara’s balance was askew and his tame cut ended up in the first’s slip’s grasp.
Rahane was perhaps the only batsman who contrived to get himself out. To put it mildly, it was a lazy stroke, playing across to a bowler who has a sharp slider quite early in his innings. It also snuck through faster than he had anticipated. At that stage of the match, it was uncalled for.
Once Kohli was dismissed, the hosts went for the jugular. Lahiru Kumara gave Ashwin a nice working over before Niroshan Dickwella dived one-handed to pouch his edge, while Saha was confounded by Sandakan’s variety. The latter survived a few nervous moments before the day ended, arguably the best Sri Lanka had enjoyed in this series.