That old English expression ‘Keep calm and carry on’ could well be tattooed on MS Dhoni and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the two calmest heads in this adrenalin-packed Indian team. On Thursday, they kept calm and carried on to pull off one of the coolest heists in recent times on a cricket field. Spare a thought for the bundle-of-tricks Akila Dananjaya, who blindsided the Indians with a six-wicket haul but had to end on the losing side.
The Indian pair’s effort, though, requires a fairly lengthy prelude. As Rohit Sharma got out after an eye-catching 45-ball 54, KL Rahul came to the crease but Virat Kohli didn’t even have his pads on. Instead, the television cameras revealed him enjoying a cup of tea.
Tea wouldn’t have seemed a bad idea then as India had raced to 109 for one in 15.3 overs, chasing a revised target of 231 for victory in 47 overs after a rain stoppage. The idea to give game time to those who didn’t have a chance to bat in the first ODI appeared logical. If you don’t experiment in this series, when would you? However, 16 balls later, when Hardik Pandya, crowded by two slips and a forward short leg, went for a non-existent single and narrowly survived a run out, it felt like panic had set in. By then, India had slumped to 119 for five, being bamboozled by Dananjaya’s mystery spin. Pandya soon departed without troubling the scorers, out stumped, and Axar Patel followed.
At 131 for seven — Dananjaya accounted for six of those wickets — victory looked improbable. But Dhoni arrested the freefall, kept using his feet against Dananjaya, kept plugging the gaps for ones and twos. More important was offering a calming presence to his brilliant support-act Kumar. Together, they added 100 runs for an unbroken eighth wicket partnership to secure a 2-0 ODI series lead, as a decent turnout at Pallekele International Stadium watched in disbelief.
Kumar grew in such confidence that he eventually outscored his senior partner to an 80-ball 53 not out, clobbering Milinda Siriwardana over deep mid-wicket and hitting back-to-back fours off Dananjaya.
But without Dhoni, this victory wouldn’t have happened. He remained unbeaten on 45 off 68 balls with just one four. But the ‘old man’ gave a masterclass in composure, intelligence and execution.
There was another young man who would have thought that it was his night. This was Dananjaya’s fourth 50-over international fixture since 2012, when he made his debut in this format. He had a four-for against Zimbabwe in Hambantota last month and was surprisingly dropped at Dambulla. The spinner decimated the Indian top-order, extensively bowling wrist spin.
It was as if he was bowling at a nets session. Incidentally, it was in a nets session in 2012 that Dananjaya burst on to the limelight. He was just a teenager, and hadn’t played any first-class or even club game, but was drafted in to bowl at the top Sri Lankan batsmen to prepare them for a tour of the UAE.
He harassed the likes of Mahela Jayawardene with his variety and impressed the former captain so much that he immediately asked the selectors to pick him for Sri Lanka’s T20 team. The dream start didn’t last long, and he retreated to domestic cricket before making his comeback recently. What a night he had! Rohit was done in with a leg-break, flat and full on leg-stump that skidded through as the batsman missed his sweep. Kedar Jadhav, in at No. 4, was taken out with a googly. Another wrong‘un breached Kohli’s defence as the India captain attempted a cover drive.
Rahul also failed to read a googly and was bowled. Pandya was cleaned up through the gate as the ball broke back and Patel departed to a fastish off-break that barely turned. Three wickets – Jadhav, Kohli, Rahul – in an over, five dismissals inside three overs after Rohit’s scalp and the 23-year-old Sri Lankan joined Rangana Herath (Galle Test 2015), Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi (World T20 opener last year at Nagpur), and Steve O’Keefe (Pune Test earlier this year) in the list of overseas spinners to torment Indian batting with turn. He finished with six for 54 in 10 overs.
For the first one hour of India’s chase, however, Rohit dazzled and Dhawan too looked imperious.
It was then that Dananjaya imposed himself on the Indians but it says something about this Indian team, and a lot about this Sri Lankan team, that it was the Indians who ended up on the winning side.