PRIOR to Saturday, Stuart Binny had never taken a Test wicket. He had come close on two occasions though, once as recently as the previous evening. The first time he produced an outside-edge in his career, the wicket-keeper in question—MS Dhoni at Lord’s—had avoided going for the catch. The wicket-keeper—Wriddhiman Saha at P’Sara Oval—did catch the ball the second time Binny got the ball to move away and catch the edge. But as we know now, he had over-stepped the line by a teeny bit.
So when he did it all over again for the third time, it was understandable that Binny was a touch sceptical. Maybe he thought that Test wicket was never coming. You couldn’t blame him. It was also a bizarre period of play where skipper Virat Kohli had left the field after injuring his hand, and India suddenly realized they had no official vice-captain before Ajinkya Rahane was trusted with taking over the reins briefly.
As Murali Vijay bent down and comfortably clasped the ball to dismiss Angelo Mathews, who had reached his century three balls earlier, Binny did initially run down the pitch flashing a wide smile and his index finger pointing towards the sky. Then came the realization that he had done this gig once already at the Oval and then ended up ashen-faced. So to avoid any further embarrassment he turned around in a flash and inquired umpire Bruce Oxenford about the co-ordinates of his front-foot. And it was only once the Australian gave it an all-clear did Binny finally experience what it is like to take a Test wicket. It’s unlikely that Binny was trying to be cheeky.
For, when you have inadvertently called someone who you shouldn’t have while your mobile is in the confines of your pocket, it’s very certain that you will double-check the screen-lock function with more care thereafter.
It was also a crucial wicket in the context of the Test. Mathews had looked impregnable till then. Yes, the very impressive Umesh Yadav had bowled many deliveries that had put the Sri Lankan captain in a spot of grave concern. But he had not only survived them, but also put the rest of the bowlers to sword in that unassuming, unsophisticated fashion that he has built a reputation for.
And he and Jehan Mubarak had just about laid the foundation for a partnership that had ‘threatening’ written all over it. As expected, with Mathews out of the way, the rest of the Sri Lankan batting fell in a heap—they overall lost their last seven wickets for 65 runs in the second session after having lost none in the first—to Amit Mishra’s guile and trickery to be bowled out for 306, handing India a very meaningful lead of 87. That lead would then be stretched to 157 with Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane—batting again at No.3—overcoming the early loss of KL Rahul and some dodgy light—the kinds where you thought the players might need night-vision goggles—to lead India to 70/1 at stumps on Day Three.
But if Binny deserved the credit for uprooting the biggest obstacle in India’s way and Mishra for seeing off the other minor ones, it was Ishant Sharma who turned the match around with an inspired spell with the second new-ball that eventually pulled the rug from under the home team’s feet.
The Lankan innings had looked on firm footing till the Ishant spell. Mathews and Lahiru Thirimanne had seen off the first hour—which is always when the P’Sara Oval wicket is at its meanest—and subsequently the second too. Thirimanne, who had scored a solitary half-century in his previous 23 innings and is still looked at as the most likely replacement for the retiring Kumar Sangakkara, never looked certain about his defence or offence but he managed to avoid getting out. He also picked up a few boundaries along the way, and for now ensured that his spot wasn’t under a cloud when the Lankan selectors sit down to pick the squad for the third Test—the first in the post-Sanga/Mahela era.
At the other end, Mathews looked solid as ever. For all the amount of runs the elegant right-hander puts up on the board—and only Don Bradman had a better average than him as Test captain—he rarely catches the eye. He leaves a lasting impression with neither his shot repertoire nor his style of play. Yet once he goes past his first half-hour at the crease, he rarely fails to reach three-figures—despite his occasional blues in the 90s. His is a simple technique based on decisive foot-work, an unfussy back-lift with little or no extravagance. Having said that he did get to his sixth Test ton on Saturday with a reverse-sweep of R Ashwin. But that was more an anomaly than an exception.
But you bowl short at him on either side of the wicket, and Mathews conjures up every ounce of energy he can muster and throws his bat at it. As Ishant found out in his first over after the lunch-break, when he was hit for three fours in as many deliveries. All three were banged in short and rose as far as Mathews’ neck, and all three were sent at many miles an hour towards the on-side boundary. Suddenly it looked like the Lankans having gained the advantage in the first session were going in for the kill. But it was Ishant who had his finger on the trigger, once play resumed after a brief interruption due to rain. He first got rid of Thirimanne, coming around the wicket and getting the left-hander to edge a wide delivery. It ended a partnership of 127 between the two.
Ishant, still smarting from the boundary barrage in his previous over, charged down the wicket in customary fashion and screamed at the batsman with his long locks briefly covering his face. It was like watching a heavy metal vocalist hit the highest note of the solo. Ishant would show off his head-banging impression yet again, this time sending back Dinesh Chandimal with a delivery that hit a length and straightened to get the right-hander caught by a juggling Rahul at second-slip. Sri Lanka never recovered from the double setback, despite Mathews reaching his century. And with two days to go, it is India who are in front. But they won’t be resting easy yet. Only last week they had gone into the fourth day’s play with a Test win seemingly right under their belt. We all know how that turned out.