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As Ravindra Jadeja came for his second spell, Kusal Perera reverse-swept him to the third-man boundary. Sri Lanka were in the middle of a superb run chase at The Oval but out of the box improvisations had been infrequent. They were thriving in convention, playing high-percentage shots and picking their spots with immaculate accuracy. As it turned out, Sri Lanka overhauled a victory target of 322 with eight balls to spare, losing just three wickets.
Still it would be harsh to criticise the Indian bowlers, who put their best foot forward but were done in by a wonderful batting display from the opposition. On a surface where three Sri Lankan fast bowlers including the great Lasith Malinga conceded in excess of seven runs per over each, Bhuvneshwar Kumar finished with 1/54 in 10 overs. Jasprit Bumrah gave away 52 runs in his 10 overs, although he didn’t get a wicket. Umesh Yadav looked a lot better, a bit of death-overs profligacy notwithstanding, than what his figures, 0/67, suggested.
But the Sri Lankan batsmen, Danushka Gunathilaka and Kusal Mendis to start with, made optimum use of every loose delivery. Gunathilaka scored only his fourth ODI half-century yesterday but never looked short of class. He had so much time to play his shots, and this 72-ball 76 against India could be a catalyst in terms of his future progress. And when a batsman plays this well and finds an ally like Mendis at the other end – they shared a 159-run second wicket partnership – it becomes very difficult for any bowling side.
The Sri Lankan batting wagon wheel showed how intelligently they picked the gaps on the on-side, scoring 173 runs in the arc between fine leg and long-on. Their scoring pattern also confirmed a definite plan to unsettle Jadeja; India’s only specialist spinner. Gunathilaka scored at a strike-rate of over 160 against the left-arm spinner, Mendis and Perera collectively accounted for 35 runs against him in 25 deliveries. Together they neutralise Jadeja in the middle overs to take firm control of the proceedings.
In hindsight, R Ashwin might have been a good option for India, with three left-handers in the Sri Lankan top five. But a thumping victory against Pakistan made it almost obligatory for the defending champions to retain the winning combination. That India finished about 20 runs short was also a poor logic. Batting first in English conditions, you will take 321 in 50 overs any day.
Not every post-mortem of a defeat needs to be a bollocking of the losing team. Sometimes you have to doff your hat to the opponents as well. Sri Lanka’s batting stunner has thrown Group B wide open.