Everything else that followed Hardik Pandya’s delightfully brutal maiden Test century should only have been a mere sideshow. Instead, Sri Lanka jostled for attention at the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium on Sunday, following another capitulation that almost threatened to overshadow the brilliance in the morning of the Indian all-rounder.
A second day that began with India having its nose in front but numerous possibilities up in the air ended with only one result possible in the third and final Test of what has been a one-sided series. Pandya’s mesmeric 108, characterised by one of the most breathtaking exhibitions of sustained clean ball-striking, had allowed the visiting side to swell its overnight 329 for 6 to 487. It was India’s lowest first-innings total of the series but a mountain to climb, as it turned out, for the Sri Lankans.
Upul Tharanga strangely opted for a review after seeking his partner's opinion after clearly nicking Mohammed Shami through to Wriddhiman Saha in the third over. Everything that followed was almost a blur with the home side being shot out in just 37.4 overs and 171 minutes for 135, Kuldeep Yadav firing another shot with returns of 4 for 40.
The total was no reflection on the nature of the surface, as Pandya had well reiterated in the first session. But because his bowlers had spent so little time on the park, because the lead was a massive 352 and because Sri Lanka was still reeling from twin blows of the Pandya onslaught and its own surrender, Virat Kohli enforced the follow-on for the second Test in a row, hoping to reopen old wounds and inflict new ones.
There was time enough for Tharanga to be dismissed for a second time in three and a half hours, bowled off the inside-edge by Umesh Yadav, as Sri Lanka laboured to 19 for 1. With three days remaining, the team needs 333 more merely to make India bat again. And a miracle to prevent a 3-0 whitewash.
More than once on this tour alone, Kohli has made his liking for Pandya’s skills all too obvious, and the young man from Baroda justified his captain’s faith with an innings of pure class, magic and wondrous, orthodox stroke-play. Pandya lost Saha to the ninth ball of the day with India having added just 10 runs to its tally, but looked sure and compact in defence as he saw off the new-ball threat of Vishwa Fernando and Lahiru Kumara.
He warmed up with a well-executed ramp off Kumara, whom he then blasted through the covers to provide the first indication that even if there was early assistance for the quicker bowlers, he wasn’t just going to go into his shell. Kuldeep provided able assistance during an eighth-wicket alliance of 62 that drove the first nail into Sri Lankan hearts, acquitting himself with credit as India moved into the 400s with nary a trouble.
Lakshan Sandakan threw a little spanner in the works by winning the battle of the chinaman bowlers with Kuldeep, then having Shami caught and bowled to reduce India to 421 for 9. Pandya had just brought up his second Test 50, off 61 deliveries, a polished knock that spoke volumes of his temperament, but far from special at that time.
The arrival of Umesh, the last man, was the cue for the Pandya mayhem. By now, Dinesh Chandimal had employed an all-spin attack, and Pandya lay into Malinda Pushpakumara, the left-arm spinner, with such abandon that even the Sri Lankans had to marvel at how beautifully he struck the ball. Targeting the straight boundaries, Pandya hammered two fours and three sixes in Pushpakumara’s 23rd over, taking 26 – the most runs scored in an over in Tests by an Indian – off it to storm into the 80s.
Umesh more than held his end up, but Pandya showed no signs of slowing down. Sandakan was driven into the grass-banks well beyond wide long-on, and Kumara was then on-driven sublimely to bring up 100 in just 86 deliveries, the second 50 coming off a mere 25 balls with one four and six gigantic sixes. Pandya didn’t have a first-class hundred before this knock; now, he boasts the joint fastest Test ton by an Indian No. 8, and has become the first Indian to score 100 or more runs in the first session of a day. How things can change in two hours!
The last wicket had added 66 – Umesh’s contribution a frugal three – when Pandya fell in the first over after lunch, giving Sandakan his maiden five-for. Sandakan threw his hands up in delight, but all the accolades were reserved for the Pandya heroics that will now force the rest of the world to view him in a new light.
While it is true that a majority of his carnage came against spin, his innings should have told the Sri Lankans that this was still an excellent surface for batting. If it did, the host wasn't listening, though the team will also point to the fact that the Indian bowlers, pacers and spinners alike, didn’t make life easy at all.
Shami, working up good pace and finding movement both in the air and off the track, fired out Tharanga and Dimuth Karunaratne in almost identical fashion while a brilliant stop from Ashwin at mid-on and a direct hit by Kuldeep at short-cover from the resultant misdirected throw from mid-on caught Kusal Mendis short of his ground. Pandya’s extraordinary day got even better when he consigned Angelo Mathews to only a second duck in 121 Test innings and at 38 for 4 inside 10 overs, Sri Lanka was wobbling.
Kuldeep then took over, showing Sri Lanka that if its left-arm spinner was good, he wasn’t bad himself. Bowling with courage and guile, he infused a million doubts to whittle away at the middle order on his way to a second four-wicket haul in Test cricket; his variations were a handful and more, the ball sometimes going a mile against crease-tied, saucer-eyed batsmen.
Only Chandimal, who batted for two hours and negotiated 87 deliveries before Ashwin ended his stay, seemed in the mood for battle. No one else showed the stomach – Dickwella’s 31 balls faced were the second most by a Sri Lankan batsman and no one else spent even 50 minutes at the crease. It was easy, all too easy, really.