AT around 2.40 pm on Tuesday, the whole of Sri Lanka collectively went Aiyo Salli. It’s an expression you get used to within a few days of being in the island. It loosely translates to a parent’s disgust over wasting their money over a child, who’s perennially poor in studies and wasted the opportunity provided to him.
But there is hardly a real-life situation for which Aiyo Salli isn’t a Sri Lankan’s first response. It can also express a number of emotions from angst, disappointment, sympathy, sarcasm to even surprise-depending on the tone used. This particular Aiyo Salli covered them all, and had a tinge of melancholy attached to it.
For, Kusal Perera had thrown it away. He had let all the hard-work and hope-building slip away in a moment of insouciance, an uncalled for reverse sweep that resulted in him being caught at point.
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It was the reverse-sweep that had played a crucial role-with Dinesh Chandimal unleashing a horde of them in the first Test-that had brought Sri Lanka back from the dead in Galle, but at SSC it would prove to be their death knell.
The Test lasted a mere eight overs post Perera’s departure, as Mathews was dismissed for a valiant 110 with Ishant Sharma snaring him with the second-new ball in the first over of the third session. That is before the tail swung their bats around with no intent; except maybe to bring about a quick finish to their woes, to be bowled out for 268 and hand India a comprehensive 117-run victory and their first series win in Sri Lanka since 1993.
But till the time Perera and Mathews were together, Sri Lanka looked keen on ruining what seemed like an inevitable tryst with glory for Virat Kohli and his young team.
In the company of his skipper Angelo Mathews, Perera had built a partnership that had from nowhere breathed life into the Test match, and probably also Sri Lankan spirits.
It was also a stand that had pushed the Indians to a state of mini-panic, with the realization that they could actually lose this match having set in. With just 15 minutes to go for the tea-break, the victory target stood just 144 runs away with Mathews already having brought up his century and looking infallible. Perera himself had without taking a single risk-much unlike his reputation-had cruised to 70.
But not for the first-time in cricket history-and possibly not the last-the reverse-sweep had proved to be the villain in the piece and the harbinger for shattered dreams.
And as Perera walked off — following an expected but avoidable confrontation with a clearly enraged Virat Kohli and with bizarrely the bowler who had dismissed him trying to calm the batsman down- the debutant smashed his bat against his pad as if to say, “What have I done?” Those present at the SSC and every Sri Lankan supporter around the world couldn’t have agreed more.
Perera and Mathews had come together with the score reading 107/5, and the Test well on its way to an early finish – like was the case at the P’Sara Oval. But the fifth day pitch was playing more like it would have on Day Three of a regular SSC Test, with the spinners not really in the game and the fast bowlers having to strive extra hard to get purchase off it.
The demons that it had possessed for most parts seemed to be taking a breather. And there were was little that India threw at them that Mathews and Perera seemed fazed by.
A real scare
To boot, they weren’t just looking to survive, they were scoring runs, and that too at a fair clip. While Mathews was as solid and steadfast as ever in both his defensive and offensive motives, Perera was a revelation. He kept the Indians at bay when they tried to attack, and then unleashed his array of brutal strokes whenever they got it wrong.
By the 73rd over of the innings, Kohli had been coaxed, even forced, to spread his field. The spinners weren’t bowling with four men surrounding the batsmen anymore. And as Perera flayed a short and wide delivery from Stuart Binny through cover, Kohli had taken out the second-slip and moved him to cover.
Suddenly it was India who were rattled and knocked off their game. Two more boundaries would follow off Perera’s bat, and Kohli’s smile had now turned into a grimace that was only getting more vexed with each boundary.
Amit Mishra had already thrown the ball on the ground in frustration with a couple of appeals not going his way.
This was a test of his mettle, an examination of his team’s temperament and ability to keep their nerve in a difficult situation. They had shown that gumption till then, having fought back from a debilitating defeat at Galle to win at the Oval and played themselves into a dominant position at SSC. Now wasn’t the time to let the pressure get to them.
To his credit, Kohli did keep changing the bowlers around, trying his best to keep Mathews and Perera guessing. As has been the case during the tour, it was R Ashwin who had the Midas touch, of course with a lot of help from Perera.
Before the other hero of the match and the series, Ishant stepped up to the plate, removing Mathews with a full swinging delivery at the Sri Lankan skipper’s pads.
Kohli then also did well to keep Ishant away from Dhammika Prasad who walked out to bat and the lanky Indian pacer keen to reignite their new-found rivalry. But Ashwin never let the two get face-to-face, removing a manic Prasad with a teasing off-break before Mishra-who ended the series with 15 wickets at 15 apiece-laid the final blow.
It was always India’s match to win. They had gone into the final day of the series holding all the aces, and probably also with the series win well under their grasp. They were tested, but they came through. And like always is the case with these run-chases on fifth days it was that one wicket that helped them turn the corner.
And yes the Aiyo Sallis were in order.