For a little under three hours on Saturday (August 12), Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul lorded over the Sri Lankan bowling. In arguably the most demanding batting conditions of the day, they got on the bike and hare away, leaving Dinesh Chandimal searching for answers.
Having tried out all but one cog of his inexperienced bowling resources, Sri Lanka’s captain belatedly turned to Malinda Pushpakumara, who had an unremarkable Test debut at the SSC ground last week. The left-arm spinner didn’t exactly weave a web of magic that hoodwinked the Indians and lured them to their doom, but he showcased the happy knack of picking up wickets that has seen him stack up upwards of 550 scalps in first-class cricket.
Without necessarily asking numerous questions of India’s batsmen with alarming turn, Pushpakumara cut a swath through the Indian top order, perhaps feeding off the uncertainty created by Lakshan Sandakan, the chinaman bowler who looked the most threatening of the Sri Lankans. Between them, the two left-arm spinners effectively staunched the bleeding and made deep inroads into on the opening day of the final Test at the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium. India will view its Day One tally of 329 for 6 after Virat Kohli won a third successive toss with no little disappointment, especially after Dhawan and Rahul had set the team on its way with the highest ever opening stand by a visiting team on Sri Lankan shores. But with the bounce already a trifle uneven, India will be happy for runs on the board that the remaining batsmen can build on, come Sunday.
Wriddhiman Saha and Hardik Pandya came through a tense passage of play in the immediacy of R Ashwin’s dismissal with two overs left, and will resume hostilities on the morrow with the new ball just seven overs old and the Sri Lankans having their tails up.
For the first time in a Test career that has ticked over to its fifth year, Dhawan made a second century in the same series, while Rahul continued to find ways of not converting fifties to hundreds. Their opening salvo of 188 though, was dotted with the most gorgeous strokes. His holiday plans scuttled by the injury to M Vijay that necessitated his call-up as replacement, Dhawan continued to cash in on the unexpected slice of luck, stamping his aggressive credentials early on when batting should have been at its trickiest.
Lahiru Kumara, however, seemed determined to test the bounce in the surface rather than try and make capital of the freshness of the track and the fact that, despite much of the mowing and the shearing of the previous morning, there still was a helpful grass covering. While Vishwa Fernando, the left-arm quick, got nice shape and kept the batsmen honest, Kumara leaked runs, the boundaries cascading off the Dhawan willow despite the vastness and the heaviness of the outfield.
Hardly a ball beat the bat in the first two hours, the only semblance of a chance coming when Rahul toe-ended a drive off Dimuth Karunaratne which Kumara, running back from mid-on, got his hands under but could not hold on to. By then, India had already rattled along to 58, midway through the 12th over, and there was to be no let-up in the frenetic rate of scoring as Dhawan blasted his way to a 45-ball half-century.
The blazing cover-drive that took him to fifty also brought up the hundred stand for the opening wicket, and with Rahul matching Dhawan in style if not for the brutality of stroke-making, India went to lunch at 134 from just 27 overs. Sandakan had bowled two exploratory overs on his comeback but was just feeling his way in, and in any case, the openers were well set by then and found it quite easy to read him off the hand.
Dhawan peppered the square boundaries on both sides on resumption and pulled away from Rahul, when Chandimal brought Pushpakumara on in the 40th over. It took the 30-year-old just three deliveries to break the alliance, Rahul charging him in a bid to deposit him over long-on but only mistiming it for Karunaratne to hold a well-judged aerial catch at mid-on.
It was the seventh successive Test innings where Rahul had topped fifty, but the hundred continued to prove elusive. Hardly had he got his pads off than Dhawan showed him how to get to three-figures, this time off just 107 deliveries, though by then, Sandakan was already beginning to display the virtues of left-arm wrist spin.
Cheteshwar Pujara, probably the finest player of spin in this XI, was all at sea, just not able to fathom which way the ball was turning – Ajinkya Rahane went through the same wringer later in the day – and while Dhawan was scoring rapidly from one end, the other end went almost static. Puhspakumara struck again, in his fifth over and again against the run of play, when Dhawan swung him off the meat of the blade, only for Chandimal to hang on to a screamer to his left at square-leg.
That was perhaps where the day turned. At that point, India had clattered to 219 in 47 overs; but it only managed 110 in the remaining 43 overs for the loss of four further wickets, through a combination of batting diffidence and the combined excellent discipline of the classical and the unorthodox, exciting, possibilities-laden left-arm spinners.
Sandakan finally found just reward for the misery he had heaped on Pujara, eliciting an outside edge to an attempted cut that nestled in Angelo Mathews’s mitts at slip. Sri Lanka caught with greater assurance than at any stage previously in the series, and as they found solid support in the field, the bowlers continued to wheel away with enhanced confidence. The scoring rate came crashing down from the heady highs of the 5s to a more sedate 3.7s, and India was forced to earn its runs as the boundary balls totally dried up.
In losing 3 for 41, India knew it had thrown away a terrific start, and Kohli and Rahane focussed on consolidation but a wicket appeared imminent with Sandakan beating Rahane repeatedly on the outside edge and the inside. As generally happens, when one bowler is creating pressure, the other benefits; Rahane ran down the pitch and played all around a straight ball from Pushpakumara to be bowled middle stump as Kohli looked on aghast.
The skipper had to perforce curb his positivity in deference to the rush of wickets and the control of the spinners, but was eventually sucked into driving at a widish delivery from Sandakan that flew off the outside edge to slip. Sri Lanka was into the allrounders now – and buoyed by the fact that the king of that category, Ravindra Jadeja, was forced to sit out of this Test. Ashwin and Saha defied the bowlers for 40 minutes before the former fell to the second new-ball, edging Fernando for Niroshan Dickwella to pull off another stunning catch, diving to his right, and complete the highlights package.