Contributions from Kohli, Rohit help India reach 319 for 6 on opening day against Sri Lanka
Kumar Sangakkara didn’t walk out for the toss in his final Test appearance, contrary to expectations, but Virat Kohli called right at the coin toss on a muggy Thursday (August 20) morning in a match India must win to entertain hopes of its first come-from-behind three-Test series win since 2001. In many ways, this was a tricky toss to win. Teams have opted to bat first on winning the toss on nine of the previous ten occasions at the P Sara Oval in Colombo; six of those matches ended in defeats for the side batting first.
India must have done its homework, but one of the golden rules, especially in the subcontinent, is that when you are in doubt, think and think again, and then bat first. As it is, much of the grass that had adorned the P Sara deck in the build-up to the game had disappeared by the time the teams arrived in the morning, which perhaps made Kohli’s decision even easier.
Kohli must have wondered if he had made the right call when he came out to bat just 22 minutes and 4.3 overs into the day. M Vijay’s Test comeback lasted a mere four balls, Dhammika Prasad jagging one back him to trap him palpably in front. The elevation of Ajinkya Rahane to No. 3 as he swapped spots with Rohit Sharma, was a failed experiment as the right-hand batsman was sucked into a drive, also by Prasad, to a wide outswinger that found its way unerringly into third slip’s midriff.
At 12 for 2, India was in serious trouble. KL Rahul had made a nervy start and once again, the onus was on the skipper to steady the ship. Kohli did that exceptionally well, shepherding Rahul through the early jitters; once Rahul found his bearings and kicked on to a wonderfully crafted second Test hundred in three matches, India fought its way back into the game.
Had it not been for Rohit’s dismissal off what turned out to be the last delivery of the evening, trapped in front by Angelo Mathews, this would have been entirely India’s day. As it stands, 319 for 6 would suggest a day of shared honours.
While Rahane’s promotion and Stuart Binny’s inclusion didn’t bear fruit – India’s latest No. 6 spent an unsure 57 minutes in making 10 before holing out to Rangana Herath – the move to push Rohit down paid off until Mathews broke through with the second new ball. Alternating judiciously between aggression and purposeful defence, he motored to a significant half-century to ensure that the gains accrued following the 164-run third-wicket stand between weren’t carelessly gifted away.
This day, however, was largely about Rahul as the main act. In Galle, he was trapped leg before for single-digit scores by pace in the first innings and spin in the second. If there was one thing Rahul showed on Thursday, it was that he was a quick learner. Having gone back to Herath in Galle and paid the ultimate penalty, he was more than eager to play the left-arm spinner off the front foot, using his feet nicely or getting outside the line of off and sweeping with intent.
Rahul should have been dismissed for 11, but Jehan Mubarak put down a regulation chance at gully as a back foot punch off Dushmantha Chameera’s third ball of the match flew off the outside edge. India would then have been 20 for 3 in the eighth over, and there is no gainsaying what that early success would have done to the confidence of Chameera, back after missing the last few Tests with a side strain. Instead, Chameera proved expensive – apart from one magnificent spell immediately after tea of 5-0-8-1 during which he accounted for Rahul – as he bowled both sides of the wicket, making it impossible for Mathews to exercise any control on the rate of scoring.
Where Rahul blossomed after a hesitant start – as his innings progressed, the cover-drives stood out for fabulous execution and the felicity with which he found the gaps – Kohli was in his element from the off. Having preached positivity and fearless cricket, Kohli turned practitioner too. Chameera having been dismantled with four boundaries in two overs, the India captain greeted the arrival of Herath with a dance down the track and a free-swinging strike of the ball that sent it crashing into the parapet just above the press box.
As the early life disappeared, the P Sara strip rolled out into a docile beauty. There was no deviation for the quicker bowlers, no spin for Herath, and while Tharindu Kaushal’s wrists did allow him to turn the ball, it wasn’t at any alarming rate to trouble the batsmen. This wasn’t a typical P Sara pitch, reputed to have the most bounce and pace off all strips in Sri Lanka; India wasn’t complaining as it recovered splendidly to call the shots for the better part of three hours.
Kohli’s dismissal came against the run of play and only because of a stunning one-handed grab to his right by Mathews at slip as the batsman dabbed at Herath. The captain walked off downcast, aware that he had thrown away a century that was his for the taking, but his understudy cruised to three figures just after tea with a scrambled brace to fine-leg.
Rahul, though, will look back on his dismissal with no great fondness. Rohit had made his intentions clear with two early sixes and the fourth-wicket stand had reached 55 when Rahul tried to fetch Chameera, bowling his heart out in a five-over spell, most of it round the stumps and banging the ball into the surface, from well outside off and pull him through mid-wicket. It was a poor choice of stroke, the ball going straight up and landing in Dinesh Chandimal’s gloves as it fell prey to gravity.
Binny struggled against Kaushal, unable to judge the doosra or read the offbreak with any great authority but carrying on gamely before the rush of blood gave Herath his second wicket of the day. At 267 for 5, the game was in the balance even though Rohit, then 46, was in complete control.
Wriddhiman Saha settled nerves with three quick boundaries to give Rohit the assurance that there was life in the India's batting yet. Rohit, relishing playing the straight-and-narrow game with the ball coming straight and with little menace, completed his fifty and then enjoyed himself against the second new ball, even though both Mathews beat him on the outside edge more than once with the brand new Kookaburra even late in the evening before bringing one back in to open up an old wound against the inswinging delivery.
The P Sara surface is unlikely to get any quicker, but its slowness could yet be a bowler’s ally as the match unfolds, considering it will make stroke-making slightly hazardous. How well a revamped Indian attack exploits it remains to be seen.
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