It was like watching couple of asthmatic wrestlers slugging out at an open arena in polluted Delhi. There was a “close” finish but no thrill. Instead, a dull listlessness evaporated out of Wankhede stadium on Christmas Eve. Sri Lanka batsmen seemed eager to catch the two-and-a-half hour flight back home, but their Indian counterparts seemed in a mood to keep them as long as possible on the field. And the match spluttered and coughed along to a last-over finish.
It came down to the last ball of the penultimate over and Dasun Shanaka channelled his inner Chetan Sharma to slip a full toss which was smashed for a six by Dinesh Karthik. Game over.
First the Sri Lankans batted in a very distracted fashion, finding lone men in the deep, or mistiming hits to the inner circle, and went down rather meekly. Luckily, their seamers were a bit keener, and with Indians seemingly sucked down by the general low quality on view, the match dawdled on.
What do you notice in a game like this, apart from the fact that the Indians, even if a bit down on inspiration, know how to close out games on their home turf on what has been a bumper home season? Not much actually.
“Lot of the guys were playing their first or second game, but it didn’t feel like that. It was our job as the team management to back them completely,” skipper Rohit Sharma said after the victory.
Head coach Ravi Shastri made it quite clear that these matches against the overmatched neighbours largely served the purpose of providing exposure to fringe players.
“There’s so much of cricket being played. and T20 for us — we don’t care. We use it to give chances to youngsters,” he said.
If you are a fussy old batting coach, you would have perhaps noticed the techniques of some younger Indian batsmen. For some reason, Rohit has a problem in picking googlies. We saw that often in the IPL with every leggie releasing the ball from the back of his hand. We saw it on Sunday with Akila Dananjaya, who nearly had his man bowled, and nearly had a return catch.
Or how Manish Pandey can move around a lot at the crease, but not really go anywhere. All his movements seem aimed to somehow yank him away from the line, stay beside the ball and flat-pull even middle-stump deliveries. It’s a technique that serves him well of course, but occasionally when the ball seams a bit, he can get into awkward positions. Mentally, he is pretty good, and as ever hung around to make a meaningful contribution in the middle order to hold the innings together. Pandey made a 29-ball 34, taking India from 39 for 2 in the 7th over to 108 when he got out in the 17th. Dushmantha Chameera got one to nip back from just outside off stump, and Pandey, despite his boxer’s shuffle, was on a leg-stump line, away from the ball which crashed through the wide gate. Until then, though, he had shown pluck and determination to not allow India to lose their final game of the season. Pulls of shuffling feet – not many play the flat-pull as straight as he does to length deliveries – were as ever the highlight of his knock.
When MS Dhoni walked out, the equation read 28 from 23 balls and the stadium came alive. The big screen showed him walking down the stairs, bat tucked in his armpit, and the crowd turned frenzied. Even when he was keeping they were chanting his name, and it reached a crescendo when he walked out to bat. At a stage in his career, when whatever he does is cheered, it seems that one of India’s most restrained captains will continue to have one of the longest celebratory farewells of our times, especially with the chief selector indicating that he is a shoe-in for the 2019 World Cup.
At the end of it all, he walked off with a red Santa cap pulled down on his face, half hour after the game. A decent crowd had waited out near the pavilion, and camera flashes went off rapidly to capture a smiling Dhoni.
In the middle, he did what he does: stayed calm, rotated the strike, walked across a few times when Karthik got too cute for his own comfort. Like in the penultimate over, with India needing 11 from 8, Kartik shuffled across to miss an intended lap shot past the short fine-leg fielder. Dhoni briskly strode across, and muttered something, enough to kill any future urge to self-destruct. Interestingly, Thisara Perera cottoned on that talk, and even when his bowler wanted to push back the short leg to deep in the last delivery, he moved in to gesture his man to come back into the circle. And then of course came that full-toss, which Karthik duly swatted over deep midwicket to effectively finish the game.
It wasn’t a breezy win that the Indians have got used to against the Sri Lankans but they would be happy that they did just about enough, and won the crucial moments that mattered.