The Sri Lankans are usually mild-mannered. But with India only eight runs away from an unassailable 3-0 lead in the five-match ODI series, the crowd at the Pallekele International Stadium started hurling bottles and missiles onto the ground, forcing a 35-minute stoppage. When play resumed after the western grass bank was vacated, India completed the formality in seven balls.
Like the last match, the Sri Lankan fans hoped for a victory after the visitors lost their first four wickets inside 16 overs for 61 runs. And just like the last match, the hosts once again hit a stumbling block in MS Dhoni, who this time had Rohit Sharma as his partner. Together they took India to their fourth consecutive ODI series win under Virat Kohli, as the locals resented the home team’s capitulation. But the excess was not in the spirit of cricket and the ICC-appointed match referee Andy Pycroft must have taken note.
Roll over the negativity to celebrate Rohit’s 12th ODI hundred — an unbeaten 124 off 145 balls, including 16 fours and two sixes — that oozed class. After a promising start, a bad shot had brought about his downfall in the last game. On Sunday, the only blemish on the knock was a dropped catch on 113 – a skier that Sri Lanka captain Chamara Kapugedera failed to pouch, running backwards. A thigh injury that required a surgery to heal followed by a bad knee had sidelined Rohit for five months cricket last term.
He returned for the IPL but didn’t quite look in his element. He scored 304 runs in five Champions Trophy matches at 76.00 alright, but somewhere that finesse had been missing. He had stopped playing the lofted flick against fast bowlers over mid-wicket and after a hiatus brought out the shot from his cupboard only in the last game with a six off Lasith Malinga.
All along, the team management has been handling him with care. He was rested for the West Indies tour to lessen the workload. If the second ODI showed signs of Rohit getting back into the groove, this game revelled in his artistry and composure. This hundred was also a reward for his hard work in the nets. Rohit hasn’t skipped even an optional practice session on this tour.
India had the licence to sleepwalk to their victory target of 218. Rohit, however, started by slapping Malinga through point for a four. But he was judicious and picked the right deliveries to hit. For a change, he lost his opening partner, Shikhar Dhawan, early. Kohli, too, departed and KL Rahul and Kedar Jadhav didn’t inspire confidence at No. 4 and No. 5 respectively. But Rohit played at his own pace.
He went down the track to hit a four off Angelo Mathews, when the hosts tried to put on the choke. He went back to play a short ball from Dushmantha Chameera and pulled it to the backward square leg fence. It took him to his half-century.
But the shot of the match was a cut against Milinda Siriwardana that was just about a couple of yards away from the sweeper cover who couldn’t move. From India’s point of view, it was important to negate a high-flying Akila Dananjaya, after his six-wicket haul on Thursday. The ‘mystery’ spinner had warmed up nicely by getting rid of Rahul and Jadhav with a googly and a leg-break respectively. But Rohit read him off his hand. It was the Mumbai school of batting at its finest.
If Rohit represented a venerable tradition, Dhoni was street smart. At times he countered Dananjaya by going almost halfway down the track. It upset the young spinner’s length. Once again, the great man showed finishing skills of a different kind; playing 86 balls, hitting just four fours and a six, scoring his 65th half-century in this format and staying till the end. It was his 299th ODI. The fourth match of the series will witness a milestone.
Jasprit Bumrah’s maiden five-for in the ODIs, and Rohit and Dhoni’s unbroken 157-run fifth wicket partnership put Sri Lanka on the brink. They now have to win both the remaining matches to secure a direct qualification for the 2019 World Cup. The only positive for them was Lahiru Thirimanne’s 80 off 105 balls on his ODI return.