Shortly after the last drinks break of the day, a paper kite wandered aimlessly into the outfield. An amused Shikhar Dhawan picked it up and tried to re-float it. Suddenly, Ravichandran Ashwin stopped in his run-up. Virat Kohli burst into giggles. Rohit Sharma began to imitate the clumsy manner in which Dhawan was searching for the kite-strings. The mood was uncharacteristically light and laid-back — unusual for teams thrusting for a win even though nothing’s coming off — and atypical for the Virat Kohli-led India, who often ratchet up an infuriating intensity.
Let it not be misapprehended as laxity, stemming from the knowledge that a draw would not stand in the way of their record-equalling ninth series triumph on the spin. But rather, they were worn down into this mood by a thoroughly commendable fight by Sri Lanka’s batsmen, who exhibited a streak of hitherto invisible purpose, and which only accelerated as the match progressed.
In retrospection, all the play-acting insinuations of the crowd, the uniquely harsh playing conditions and Sri Lanka’s own comical implosions might have conspired in whipping up a performance they would rejoice and remember for a long time. An inconsequential draw it might be in the context of the series, but rarely had a draw smelt as sweet as a victory, or assumed greater significance for them. A draw that could be a spur-on, a result that portends better times ahead for them.
What would make them feel even more contended, and positive of their future, might be the involvement of unusual protagonists in the script. A highly promising young batsman who has seen the best of times and the worst of times in his 10-Test-old career. A debutant domestic stalwart, who had wait to nearly 10 years and 103 matches to get a Test break, a talented but volatile wicket-keeper batsman who has repeatedly frustrated the selectors.
Dhananjaya de Silva braved his glute strain and scored a career-restoring hundred, Roshen Silva overturned a nightmarish initiation into Test cricket with a fluent unbeaten 74, and Niroshan Dickwella guaranteed his side wouldn’t lose another wicket to his indiscretion. There were iffy moments — those that could have perhaps altered the outcome of the match — but Sri Lanka were determined to fight, fight like their lives hung on it. And yet, they made the fight look effortless.
Lately, it hasn’t been the case. A wicket usually leads to a chain of wickets. Like on Tuesday evening, when they two in the space of four balls. The same, familiar script seemed to unravel when first-innings centurion Angelo Mathews departed much before the crowd had settled in their seats. Or when they lost the skipper Dinesh Chandimal, after he and de Silva had added 112 runs and seen out 198 balls — a partnership that was the spine of their innings.
The fifth-day hangmen
When the skipper perished shortly after lunch — in a manner he would’ve rued if they were to lose — it seemed just a formality before Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, the fifth-day hangmen, executed the rest in a matter of time.
Sensing the kill, on the brightest day of the Test, Kohli brought his field up. The close-in chorus was the loudest the entire day, Jadeja was snarling and smirking and ripping the ball; and Ashwin was emptied out his bag of tricks. The fizzer, the skidder, the wrong’un, the finger-flicker, the off-break, the flipper — whatever they hurled, Silva was unperturbed, as if he had scored a hundred in the first innings and not a three-ball duck. The good balls were blocked, the great ones blunted and the bad ones punished, unweighed by the heady task of batting out the entire day, rather like enjoying the bright sunshine and pleasant Kotla weather on perhaps the least devilish of Kotla strips in the last two decades.
His support assured de Silva, who batted uninhibitedly, unfazed by the adversity. Rather than inclined to dead-bat as batsmen tend to in such circumstances and look for survival, they played like Dinesh Chandimal said, “normally and without pressure.” They ate up 20 overs, and 20 overs of the most crucial passage of the play, surgically neutralising the most threatening of India’s bowlers, Jadeja, who boasts of a combined third-fourth innings average of 17.41.
Finally, de Silva’s pain gave India a glimmer of hope to trigger a hasty collapse. He retired to the dressing room, with Sri Lanka still needing to waddle through 20-25 uncertain overs. The pitch, which according to Cheteshwar Pujara didn’t “deteriorate as much as the team would have liked”, had just begun to reciprocate Jadeja’s pleas. A few ones kept low, a few other leapt off the rough. But Silva, his confidence buoyed, showed his competency, jumping out to the spinners and driving them unhurriedly through the covers, thus forcing them to shorten the length.
India thought it was wiser to attack Niroshan Dickwella more — and the latter fell into the ploy of attacking them back. But much to India’s dismay, he survived, sometimes authoritatively, sometimes streakily. In the heat of moment, Wriddhiman Saha missed a stumping off Ashwin, Vijay didn’t dive to intersect a boundary. Earlier, Ashwin fluffed a return catch of de Silva — which didn’t require Nathan Lyon — like athleticism, but just anticipation. Jadeja had bowled Chandimal off a no-ball before lunch. All of these could make India repent, though it shouldn’t devalue Sri Lanka’s sterling effort.
Later in the day, Chandimal praised the fight his young batting colleagues showed. And how they made the fight look so easy.