A magical comeback for Sachin Tendulkar, where sparkling strokeplay blended with youthful daring, inspired India to a mammoth total before the spinners taunted the Sri Lankan batsmen and completed a rout in the opening game at Nagpur. In a game that proceeded at a breakneck speed, Irfan Pathan and Rahul Dravid produced crackling 80s to complement Tendulkar’s fizz, taking India to an impregnable score and giving them the perfect start to the series.
On a belter of a pitch, the Sri Lankan bowlers weren’t allowed to settle into their restrictive, choking rhythm and all the Indian batsmen fearlessly attacked, rode their luck and seized the momentum. The counterpunch, from Kumar Sangakkara, was startling but brief and the Indian spinners, led by Harbhajan Singh, were soon in their element and turned things around in a trice. Introduced in the 11th over, with the run-rate already 7.4, Harbhajan spun rings around the batsmen, turning it viciously both ways, and triggered a sudden collapse from which Sri Lanka never recovered.
Tendulkar’s opening gambit, though, was the talk of the day. Returning after a six month lay-off, Tendulkar arrived with a gambler’s instinct only to hit the jackpot with whatever he tried. There was risk, frenzied spells of play and cheeky improvisation, but all this was amid magical strokeplay reminiscent of the boy genius who charmed all in the last decade. He charged down the track to Chaminda Vaas, scampered perilous single after perilous single, was occasionally beaten by seam movement and change of pace, chipped a few that just eluded fielders, and attempted some audacious shots.
In between all this were some stomach-churning moments: a thundered six over midwicket, a classical straight-drive off the front foot – with a high elbow, minimum follow through and slight nod of the head a few moments after bat struck ball – a cheeky paddle-sweep off Vaas, when he read the line and beat the fielder to perfection. Fifty off 50 balls, momentum seized, bowlers hassled, fielders guessing, captain experimenting, crowd in a frenzy … welcome to Tendulkar territory.
He soon shifted to a lower gear, but the experiment to promote Pathan to No.3 was working spectacularly at the other end. He fed off Tendulkar’s aggression and announced his arrival with a superb pulled six off Vaas. Once the spinners came on, he began to soar. Tillakaratne Dilshan was dismissed for two fours and a six, Upul Chandana for a four and two sixes. The straight boundaries were peppered with some crisp lofted drives as Pathan, who raced to a 41-ball fifty and went on to outscore Tendulkar soon after, increased the tempo.
The fall of both Pathan and Tendulkar in quick succession gave Sri Lanka a small window of hope but Dravid’s silken dismantling of their attack left them gasping. Dravid is arguably the best finisher in one-dayers today and his shot selection in the slog overs was simply impeccable. He brought up his fifty off 47 balls, mainly through some judicious strike rotation, but launched into a splendid blitz at the death and ended on 85 off just 63. If you can end an innings with a sequence that reads `four, two, four, two, dot, four, four’ and rattle the Sri Lankans into elementary fielding errors, you have surely done a cracking job.
Chasing 351 was never on the cards but Sangakkara’s belligerent riposte created some flutters. Any error in length was dismissed to the advertising hoardings square of the wicket as S Sreesanth, who had a fiery baptism, and Irfan Pathan were dismissed with supple wrists. Flicking with ease and dancing down the track to the medium-pacers, Sangakkara appeared to be having a joyous tennis session, unleashing powerful forehands and rasping cross-court passes.
That’s when Dravid’s captaincy and Harbhajan’s guile took over. Dravid preferred to not opt for the second Powerplay, since Sri Lanka were rocketing along after 10 overs, and introduced Harbhajan into the attack. With the partnership broken, he decided to immediately revert to the field restrictions and all his decisions began turning into gold. Harbhajan’s triple-strike – including a peach of an arm ball to nail Russel Arnold – left them in tatters before Murali Kartik, the Supersub, ripped the ball around and bamboozled the lower middle order.
The mighty strikes by Vaas and Dilhara Lokuhettige towards the end of the day came long after the deck was burnt and Sri Lanka will travel to Mohali knowing that when playing India, the favourite’s tag, which they still retain, can easily be wrenched away when one little man is turning on the heat.
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