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As a kid, Kusal Mendis was denied admission to St Sebastian’s College, the most prestigious school in his hometown of Moratuwa, despite him being a Catholic. The son a rickshaw-puller, Mendis, couldn’t afford the fees and instead opted to settle for the government-run Prince of Wales College. Though within a couple of years, it was St Sebastian’s who were on Mendis’ tail, desperate to get the most prodigious school cricketer in the country, on their roll. Mendis of course wasn’t interested anymore. Asela Gunaratne was a reluctant school cricketer, who preferred playing on the paddy fields rather than at school. And it was only on their insistence of his coaches that he began taking the sport seriously.
On Friday, the two teamed up and took a fancied Indian team to school at the Oval in an upset that didn’t seem like one, considering how convincing it was.
If it was Mendis, who set the game up with a polished and momentum-changing 89, it was Gunaratne’s cameo, 34 off 21, that saw the Lankans home to their second-highest successful ODI run-chase. Danushka Gunathilaka, skipper Angelo Mathews and a hobbling Kusal Perara played their parts too with attacking half-centuries as the papare silenced the bhangra on a cloudy day at the Oval to upset the apple-cart in Group B [see Table].
It wasn’t long ago that the two teams played each other so often that Kumar Sangakkara had once spoken about not recalling the last time he walked into a hotel lobby and not confronted an Indian team. It was also a time when the teams would be competitive with big names on both sides.
The Lankans could always throw up a Dilshan, Sangakkara and Jayawardene to face off against a Tendulkar, Sehwag and Dhoni. If India had Zaheer and Harbhajan, then there was always Murali and Vaas on the other side. But even though it was India who hit the transformation phase earlier than their southern neighbours, they seem to have gotten over it a lot faster. And here, once India had posted a sizable total of 321/6 on the board, the result had started feeling all too inevitable for almost everyone at the Oval, the hordes of dhol playing, noise-making Indians, and probably even Virat Kohli & Co. The last-over blitz from Kedar Jadhav seemed to have killed of any momentum Sri Lanka could have hoped of taking to the half-time break.
The start was slow too from Sri Lanka with Niroshan Dickwella going nowhere with his innings. It was the arrival of Mendis though that set the innings going. Sri Lanka have always had middle-order batsmen of renown, right from their early days as a cricket nation. And the worrying drought seemed to be stretching for too long before Mendis burst on to the scene. Mendis is diminutive and more a touch-player, in the Sangakkara and Aravinda de Silva mould, silken yet destructive. And though he started off with a couple of chancy boundaries, he was soon launching into the Indian pace attack, slashing away deliveries with width from the pacers before taking on Ravindra Jadeja. It was his attack on Jadeja, where he kept walking across his stumps and hitting the left-arm spinner with the angle rather than worry about any turn — like de Silva used to off Kumble — that put the Indians off their game. He then punished Hardik Pandya with three boundaries on the trot, and suddenly Kohli had to not only bring himself on but also throw the ball to Kedar Jadhav — a move that was recommended by MS Dhoni from behind the stumps. India were rattled.
At the other end, Gunathilaka, was playing his role too. Like a stylist in the middle-order, Sri Lanka have always had a gung-ho left-hander at the top of their order. Umesh Yadav never quite recovered from the early assault that was launched on him. Gunathilaka whacked a short delivery over deep square-leg, before powerfully striking a couple of fuller ones through the covers and back down the ground respectively.
When the two ran themselves out, following a 159-run stand, they had given India an uncalled for escape route. In walked Perera, a punt from Mathews to up the ante, and the captain himself. Perera played his role to perfection despite suffering a hamstring pull, which forced him to basically stand on one leg and tee off.
His painful departure though came at the right time, as it launched Gunaratne on to the stage. But after a couple of sighters against Yadav, he launched him over deep fine-leg and then over the next 10 minutes, produced hitting of spell-binding quality. Bhuvaneshwar Kumar was the first to pay as Gunaratne first picked his knuckle ball and thump it off a length before slashing a wide yorker past point. In the next over, he swept Jasprit Bumrah, a bowler whose mastery over length many a batsman has struggled to cope with, over deep square-leg, in what was the knock-out punch.
It was Mathews though who deservedly scored the winning runs before pointing at his name towards the dressing-room. It was a call for them to believe in themselves. A day earlier he had been asked about the various roles he’s had to don as a batsman for Sri Lanka over the years. ‘Responsibility’ is one word he used a lot, and revealed how it’d been thrust upon him from his school days. And it came through spectacularly here as he quietly and unassumingly shepherded his team home, leaving the Indians scampering for the drawing-board with Sunday’s match against South Africa now having been turned into a knockout contest.