It was only last August that Kasun Rajitha was busy trying to organize a few selfies for himself with as many of the Indian Test team members as possible at the Premadasa Stadium. The tall fast bowler from Matara had after all never rubbed shoulders with an international team before. And some of the Indians he was shyly posing next to were those he had dismissed earlier in the day as part of a five-wicket haul that rocked the visitors in their only warm-up game prior to the three-match series.
Rajitha had previously only taken more than two wickets in an innings on one occasion. At the Maharashtra Cricket Association (MCA) Stadium, with the lights shining bright, it was Rajitha who was hamming the camera, punching the air and contorting his face violently to display his delight in demolishing the much-vaunted Indian top-order. And he did it in style as Sri Lanka beat India by five wickets in the first of three T20s.
At least in the early going, the man responsible for holding the mirror up to the hosts was 22-year-old Rajitha. The likes of Dushmantha Chameera and Dasun Shanaka then did their bit too.
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Rohit Sharma was the first to go—just like he had been in Colombo eight months ago—playing a shot that didn’t look like getting him out. But the ball moved just a tad off the pitch, and didn’t quite find the exact middle of his bat, ensuring that his genteel push towards the straight field resulted in a diving catch at mid-off by Chameera. Ajinkya Rahane followed four balls later, closing the face of his bat a second quicker than he should have, and being caught by another diving Sri Lankan, this time at short-cover.
Shikhar Dhawan you always expect to struggle in such conditions, and he did just that. He kept slashing at deliveries that pitched and moved away from him, got hit on the pads as he clumsily tried to tuck them away, and then lost his wicket to a wild heave towards the Pune night sky that instead carried to third-man off the outside edge of his bat.
Middle order in trouble
It is then that Yuvraj and Raina were united at the crease. Only a week ago, the two left-handers had proved how lethal they still are when it comes to finishing off these limited-over matches. But here was a case of them braving the storm and then taking their team to as safe a destination as possible. But Raina resembled someone trying his best to cross a busy freeway as he tried his best to counter Rajitha and Chameera, who were bowling at rapid pace and were also hitting the lengths from where the ball was moving around. He escaped getting caught twice, once dropped at third-man and then at deep mid-wicket. The first was a similar shot to what Dhawan would attempt in vain later, and the second a heave to the leg-side. He did hit a few boundaries but then was late on a medium-paced delivery from Shanaka that pitched on middle and knocked his leg-stump down.
Yuvraj on the other hand started his innings with a mighty six off Sachitra Senanayake, but never looked at ease against the seamers. He was struck painfully behind his ear by a Chameera bouncer, before pre-empting an encore and falling to a meek pull shot off a delivery that didn’t pitch too short.
It might not have been the manner in which India would have hoped for their middle-order to be exposed. But it at least meant that Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh finally had a sumptuous opportunity to show how they cope with a situation where they are patching up rather than garnishing a T20 innings. It proved India cannot depend on Yuvraj and Raina—both falling to innocuous shots at the end of awkward stints at the crease—to dig them out of a hole if the top-order doesn’t quite fire the way it has been, especially when the pitch is green and the ball is snaking around. If anything, they are yet to prove that they can stitch things up even on flatter wickets.
Dhoni then countered a bouncer as if he was shocked by it. He shouldn’t have been surprised by it, considering that he had seen many deliveries zoom past the heads of the ones before him. But he was. It was that kind of a day.
And it took R Ashwin and Ashish Nehra to take India past the three-figure mark. The last part of India’s innings and the start of Sri Lanka’s kind of belonged to Nehra. He hung around for 19 deliveries, turning back the clock to display his unique style of defending deliveries, to help Ashwin make 30. He then struck twice with the new-ball to give India a semblance of hope but 102 was always going to be a score that Sri Lanka only needed a partnership or two to get through. Skipper Dinesh Chandimal anchored the chase well enough to ensure that.