In 39 Tests before this, Suranga Lakmal’s 88 wickets came at an average of 44.82. He had only one five-for; 5/63. On a 12-over day at Eden Gardens on Thursday, the Sri Lanka fast-medium bowler returned with the figures of 6-6-0-3. KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli fell to him, but we would come to that later.
The Eden Gardens felt like Headingley, weather and swing-wise. The bounce was more akin to Durban. Inclement weather and overcast skies made the pitch a little damp as well. Fast bowlers had to revel in tailor-made conditions.
The first session of the first Test was lost because of bad weather. The ground staff did an excellent job to ensure an early afternoon toss and 1.30 pm start. But no sooner had the players gone to the middle the rain returned. As a matter of fact, Sri Lanka won a very good toss and promptly decided to bowl.
Eventually it turned out to be a stop-start, crazy one hour of play. Around 3.35 pm, after a Lahiru Gamage delivery swung in and then seamed away, and missed Cheteshwar Pujara’s off-stump by a coat of varnish, the curtain was lowered. In between, it had been a battle of survival for the Indian batsmen.
Rahul went first ball, an unplayable one to be precise. It pitched on the off stump, seamed away late, squared up the opener and took the outside edge to the ‘keeper. Rahul joined Sudhir Naik and Sunil Gavaskar to be dismissed first ball at an Eden Test. Naik had fallen prey to Andy Roberts in 1974-75. Gavaskar had inside-edged a Malcolm Marshall delivery to Jeff Dujon, putting a damper on the huge expectations of his then record-breaking 30th Test hundred.
Back to the present, Pujara is perhaps the best Indian batsman in difficult conditions because of his patience and his ability to remain unfazed over the close calls – getting beaten. He took 22 balls to get off the mark. Before that a Lakmal inswinger cut him in half and narrowly missed the top of the middle stump.
Even his first runs had been a scratchy four past the fine gully fielder, who stood within the handshaking distance of the fourth slip. But the Saurashtra man was ready to fight it out. A lovely off-drive off Gamage followed, which was Pujara’s first proper scoring opportunity.
India had to stick to Dhawan as an opener after his excellent performance in Sri Lanka. The left-hander benefited from Gamage’s inconsistency. Dhawan even had a square cut for four on this wicket, with Gamage bowling a wide half-tracker.
But Lakmal pitched one up to the Indian opener and induced him to an expansive drive. The ball jagged back, took the inside edge and sent the stumps cartwheeling. Not more than 2000-odd spectators turned for the first day’s play but they made enough noise as Kohli walked in. Lakmal, however, was in the middle of a superb spell. He dried up the runs, moved the ball both ways and gained the upper hand over the Indian batsmen.
A leg-cutter beat Kohli all ends up but missed the outside edge. The India captain tried to counter the away movement by changing to an off stump guard.
But it was Lakmal’s day. He made one hold its line as Kohli played for an outswinger. Umpire Nigel Llong upheld the leg before appeal and the review showed the ball was clipping the leg stump. Kohli went for a duck after facing 11 balls. The light deteriorated soon after and that was that in terms of the opening day action.
Pitch, the topic of discussion
All through the 11.5 overs, the pitch had been the topic for discussion. Eden had laid out a seamer-friendly track for last year’s Test against New Zealand as well. But this one offered extra bounce. Indian Test venues usually throw up dust-bowls or slow turners and the game meanders along in a predictable sequence on most occasions.
This was a refreshing change. Fast bowlers going full tilt with four slips and a gully and making the ball rear is a test of character for batsmen. For India to shed the spin-track bully tag, success is required on such pitches. Two months down the line, South Africa will welcome Kohli and company with surfaces of similar kind. This Indian team, however, wants to embrace the challenge.
“The mindset of winning is very important and from that you start working your game and look forward to playing in difficult conditions. If you can embrace playing in difficult conditions, that will be the difference. We want to be uncomfortable we want to embrace being uncomfortable and that’s the most important thing,” Kohli had said on the eve of the game.
The team’s assistant coach, Sanjay Bangar dittoed. “We are happy to play on a wicket like this. This team doesn’t really want play on easy conditions. We challenge ourselves. Most players are open to such challenge. We want to continue our improvement as a team. The last Test here was against New Zealand, it was similar sort of wicket after it was re-laid. We played the Test really well,” he said after the day’s play.
Stoppages, however, made things even more difficult for the batsmen. They couldn’t get into a rhythm. Bangar himself had played a gritty 236-ball 68, staying at the crease for 296 minutes, in similar conditions at Headingley 15 years ago. He and Rahul Dravid had set up India’s innings victory over England. But today, as Bangar described, it felt more like a day/night Test played with a red ball.
‘One of the finest spells’
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s fast-bowling coach Rumesh Ratnayake described Lakmal’s spell as “one of the finest I have seen for a long time”. About the pitch he said: “I would love to say yes as a fast-bowling coach that Test cricket needs such pitches (once in a while). (But) going through five days I don’t know if it’s the best option. I believe this pitch offers 50-50 chance for both teams. It might be a nightmare for the batsmen.”
Around 250 could be the par first innings total here. India’s progress will depend on how Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane gel together.
6-6-0-3 — spell from hell
At the Eden, Suranga Lakmal tore through the Indian top order and gave the Sri Lankans belief that they can compete with the No.1 side.
– Pace bowlers dream of spells like this when they see a green top on the first day of a Test. Suranga Lakmal could be forgiven for getting carried away and bowling all over the place. After all, he hardly ever encounters such surfaces in Sri Lanka.
– But the opening bowler stuck to a fuller length just outside the off stump, constantly asking tough questions of the Indian top and middle order. He finished the day snaring three quality batsmen and not conceding a single run. The three wickets also came in different fashions.
– KL Rahul edged a rising delivery just outside off stump to the wicketkeeper. Shikhar Dhawan played on going for an ambitious drive on the up, with the inside edge cannoning on to the stumps. Virat Kohli was caught in front by one that moved in after pitching.