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Ishant, Ashwin bowl India to rare series victory

Visiting side wraps up 117-run at the SSC after Angelo Mathews’s gritty 110 helps Sri Lanka take match into final session

Ishant, Ashwin bowl India to rare series victory - Cricket News
Indian players celebrate after winning the match.

Test match victories, especially overseas, don’t always come easy. Test series wins away from home come even harder. India walked the hard road to success at the SSC ground, quelling formidable resistance from the indefatigable Angelo Mathews to script a come-from-behind series win on Sri Lankan soil.

Not since Mohammad Azharuddin’s Class of 1993 had an India side returned home from the Emerald Isle with a series win to its name. Not since Sourav Ganguly’s Class of 2001 had India fought back from 0-1 down to emerge victorious in a three-Test series. Both boxes were ticked emphatically, Virat Kohli crowning his first full series as captain by leading India to a hard-earned 117-run victory in the final Test on a searing, humid Tuesday (September 1).

A fifth-day SSC deck that offered precious little for the bowlers – pacers or spinners – made India’s job as difficult as Mathews and Kusal Perera did. The seasoned captain and the spunky debutant threatened not just to steer Sri Lanka to safety but also briefly raised visions of a most extraordinary victory before India jumped on the opening offered by Perera’s mistimed sweep shot to storm home in some style. Sri Lanka’s brave second-innings charge ended at 268, a little after tea, though during the Mathews-Perera stand, it threatened a lot more.

India's victory was on the cards when Sri Lanka began the final morning on 67 for 3 chasing 386, but it wasn't going to be easy: wickets would have to be earned and batsmen would have to be prised out. Survival wasn’t the most difficult task – inasmuch as the pressure of batting time isn’t a difficult task – but Sri Lanka’s bigger challenge was to strike the ideal balance between passive defence and outrageous strokeplay.

No one is more adept at batting in the fourth innings than Mathews. He averages more in the last innings of a Test than in any other innings – it was 70 in 12 knocks before he unleashed his seventh Test hundred – and he showed on Tuesday why that is so with a tremendously controlled compilation. He did have his slices of fortune – caught behind early in the day off an Ishant Sharma no-ball and surviving a run-out chance not long thereafter – but to his great credit, he never lost focus at any stage.

Without going into his shell, Mathews kept the five-pronged attack at bay fairly comfortably, pressing fully forward or going right back, leaving balls outside off stump with practised ease, and driving handsomely through the off side whenever he was presented length and whenever he felt confident that the ball wouldn’t break off the surface.

India was disciplined with the ball for vast periods, only looking vulnerable for a brief while in the afternoon session when the effects of the heat and the burgeoning sixth-wicket stand dampened its spirits slightly. It bowled tirelessly; Ishant was the clear leader of the pack with his great control, R Ashwin kept the batsmen guessing with variations in pace and length and flight and loop, and Mishra was steady if not threatening right throughout the day, only Umesh Yadav and Stuart Binny flagging a bit under the mid-afternoon sun and Perera’s sustained assault.

It was Umesh, however, who had set India on its way in the final morning, getting rid of Kaushal Silva off the 18th ball of the day with a short delivery that the little opener fetched from outside off and only managed to slice to midwicket. Silva had played the pull with some success the previous evening but this stroke, from a tricky height and line, didn't prove fruitful.

Lahiru Thirimanne, meanwhile, survived a torrid examination. Ishant produced a nasty lifter to smack Thirimanne on his right glove, while the other two faster bowlers kept up the pressure with good lengths and a wonderful channel of operation. Kohli persisted almost entirely with pace for the first hour and a half, not bringing Mishra on until the 37th over and summoning Ashwin in the 38th for the first time since the offspinner bowled the first over of the day, sending down the remaining five deliveries of the unfinished over from the previous evening.

Ashwin struck almost immediately, luring Thirimanne into playing the whip to a delivery pitched outside leg. The ball turned and took the leading edge, and KL Rahul at silly point showed excellent reflexes and athleticism to take the catch at the second attempt. As the ball seemed to be soaring over him, Rahul leapt up to parry the ball with his left hand, then whirled to his right to lunge forward and gobble up the ball. Sri Lanka 107 for 5 with lunch more than a half-hour away.

Perera joined his skipper with his side in a spot, and proceeded to play in the manner that he knows best. While Mathews continued to remain stoic, Perera provided the energy and thrust to the innings with his dynamism. He had announced his arrival in Tests with a half-century in the first innings and he batted in much the same fashion, seizing upon the slightest indiscretion in length with muscular pulls and crunching cuts.

Mathews dropped a gear as he struggled for second wind in the extreme heat. All through the Test, he has been having problems with the weather and, with a wet towel around his neck, he ploughed on knowing that the road to safety was long and arduous. He quickly got into his 90s, then chopped Binny behind point to raise three figures, though he was far too weary to celebrate with any gusto.

Sri Lanka had almost seen off the second session without damage when, without warning, Perera sacrificed the commonsense that had served him so well. A reverse sweep off Ashwin picked Rohit Sharma out at point, and the relief in the Indian camp was nearly palpable. Perera left admonishing himself after a stand of 135 that ate up more than two-and-a-half hours.

With tea a quarter-of-an-hour away and the second new ball imminent, it was the turning point in the Test.

Even when the Mathews-Perera association was in full bloom, the second new ball was identified as the key to deciding the outcome of the match. Ishant took just three deliveries to justify that theory, hitting Mathews on the back leg with a full ball in the first over after the interval. It was Ishant’s 200th Test wicket; he couldn’t have asked for a more worthy opponent’s scalp.

Ashwin and Mishra then ran amok, mopping up the tail. From Perera’s fall, Sri Lanka lost 5 for 26 in nine overs, the last four wickets falling in 26 minutes after tea for the addition of just 19 runs. The end was swift, but this was no piece of cake for India. Which will probably help it appreciate this victory even more.

To see the full scorecard of this match, please click here. 

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