Half of the Indian fielders formed a well-defined crescent around Kusal Mendis, staring at him and joking around in an alien tongue. There were sweaty palms, fidgety bodies and puzzled eyes. On the ground, there was a sudden rush of excitement. The mood was in stark contrast to the stupor until the innings break — when India eventually declared at 622, their sixth 600-plus total since December last year. The Indian batsmen still accumulated the runs at a brisk pace, but there was a dearth of incidents and drama, or any imminence of those.
The odd ball slithered sharply, Ravindra Jadeja and Mohammed Shami struck a few lusty blows, but at no juncture did the match resemble even a semi-thrilling contest. India were cold; Sri Lanka seemed frozen. The entire stadium lurched into a post-lunch siesta. It took off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, who shared the new ball with Mohammed Shami, just three balls to wake them up, with a rip-roaring delivery. It drifted into an unsuspecting Upul Tharanga, who followed the drift, before the ball broke away, taking with it a piece of the surface. Tharaga’s eyes goggled, as if he had spotted an apparition. This was the most clinching proof that the strip has assumed devilish proportions. The new ball guaranteed that there was sufficient bounce too. From there on, the match turned suspenseful, like an edgy horror flick.
Soon, Tharanga began to suspect everything that floated over his eye-line. The follow-up was almost anti-climactic, a straighter delivery that snorted into his pads. Tharanga, bleeding nerves, defended awkwardly on the back foot. Cue another similar delivery, a few centimetres outside the off-stump coming into him. Ashwin was softening him up for the kill, astutely making his moves like a veteran Grandmaster. The slow, looping off break was coming.
But Ashwin didn’t get the wicket the way he had planned as Tharanga’s airy flick stuck into KL Rahul’s torso at short-leg. Buoyed by a wicket in his very first over, Ashwin pulled out his vaunted tricks one by one-the carrom ball, the slider, the kinking off-breaks, allying it with flight, loop and dip. Dimuth Karunaratne, whose only consolation of the day being Cheteshwar Pujara’s wicket, turned into a nervous wreck, crease-tied and mind-numbed. Playing on a loop at the back of his mind was the two sliders that nixed him in Galle.
So, tetchy and tenuous, he played every delivery of Ashwin with a fear that it would be his last. Ashwin made his life hellish-one spun viciously to brush the shoulder of his bat, another lulled him into the drive before evading the outside edge by the slimmest of margins. Ashwin was modulating his pace and angle delightfully and toying with the batsmen’s mind. Karunaratne was riding plain luck. But he couldn’t keep riding his luck forever. One eventually managed to kiss his outside edge to the slips-man Ajinkya Rahane. Karunaratne could have sighed in relief, for the ordeal was finally over.
But, if anything, the ordeal has just begun, for the pitch is throwing tantrums at a fiendish frequency. It’s not like the Pune snake-pit during the India-
Australia series, nor could it unravel as hastily as that, but there’s a lurking tackiness about the wicket that makes batting a harrowing experience. Karunaratne later reflected the recipe is to bat positively. He, though, would vouch it’s harder to actualise than speak.
The first sign of the pitch shedding its friendliness came in the lead-up to lunch, when the hitherto toothless Malinda Pushpakumara made one turn sharply away from a spot (not a rough) just outside Ajinkya Rahane’s off-stump. It reaped immediate rewards too, as Rahane flitted down the track a couple of balls later and was beaten in the flight to be stumped.
Such incidents, though, came few and far between when Sri Lanka bowled. The regularity only increased as the match progressed and the surface deteriorated. So rather than be encouraged by the tantrums, every such delivery sprinkled grains of suspicion amidst them, for India had already stacked up more than 400 runs. The very thought of the trial that awaited them at the hands of Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja would have made their limbs quiver.
Karunaratne felt the the pitch will be de-venomed once the new ball loses its hardness, and as the strip becomes slower. But Jadeja and Ashwin are supremely-endowed bowlers who can exploit even the minutest whiff of assistance available.
Jadeja, even more so, as there are a couple of spots outside the right-hander’s good-length area, from where the ball had kicked and jumped disconcertingly into them. And there are few other spinner around the world who could relentlessly probe those spots as Jadeja.
It was Jadeja-like accuracy that the Sri Lankan bowlers, even their metronomic Rangana Herath, couldn’t produce. They were indisciplined and impatient in equal measure. Off-spinner Dilruwan Perera embodied the malaise.
True that they can blame a placid first-day pitch and their lone pacer Nuwan Pradeep’s injury for the ditch they find themselves in, but in the end they were left wanting for discipline and patience. It’s the turn of their batsmen to atone for them.