There are some simple things, the subtle things that make Test cricket what they are.
For instance, the volume of the chatter around the stumps. Over the last few months, India’s close-in cordon has resembled a crowded market. There’s the oohs and aahs after every delivery from Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. “Aur ghooma”, spin it more, and the other pieces of helpful advice from keeper Wriddhiman Saha. The gentle, easy smiles of Ajinkya Rahane. It’s not just encouragement, it borders on relaxed confidence.
And so when the volume diminishes is when you really know that something is happening without even looking at the score. When Jadeja turns away frustrated, when Saha’s encouragement becomes just that…encouragement, you know, you know…India are flustered.
There have been seven days of cricket in this ongoing Test series between Sri Lanka and India. There could have been eight but India did not need the fifth day on the first Test, dismantling the hosts within four days. As alluded to in an earlier piece, this has been a series more of India competing between themselves and Sri Lanka not even posing a brief challenge.
But for a few hours on Saturday, that changed as Kusal Mendis and Dimruth Karunaratne joined forces. Mind you, it wasn’t even a full day’s challenge…Sri Lanka had displayed abjectness when they were bundled out for 183 at lunch. Perhaps, that forced them to dig into deeper, hitherto undiscovered reserves of courage, most exemplified by Mendis’s sweep.
The highly-regarded 22-year-old is perhaps the best sweeper of a cricket ball in modern-day cricket. Sweeping the world’s two best spinners on a dusty, turning track is among the most difficult things to do in cricket. But Mendis, batting without care and concern – the beauty of youth – repeatedly and defiantly swept. He swept behind square, he swept in front of square, he did the slog-sweep….and finally, finally, the cheers came out in Sri Lanka.
At one stage, a frustrated Jadeja, getting more and more annoyed with every ball, got swept twice and driven twice, for four fours in five balls. You started seeing sights you don’t always see. Jadeja frowning, Ashwin grimacing, Virat Kohli scratching his beard, even exchanging a word or two with young Mendis. Fielders being spread out. And, unlike the explosion of noise that accompanies a delivery bowled by an Indian bowler, it became sedate. Karunaratne played his part at the other end, patiently patting away deliveries, edging past his own half-century and it was definitely Mendis who stole the show.
The captain may not have liked it but it will do him and this series a world of good. India are currently the No 1 Test team but apart from the series against Australia, they have rarely been tested. That will not remain forever and when India go overseas. Tough times will raise their head. Better for Kohli and this team to have a day like this when they have the opposition on the mat rather than on Day 1 of an overseas Test.
But this series, in danger of joining the long ranks of no-interest Tests, especially in light of the engrossing England-South Africa encounter on the other side of the world, needed this. Sri Lanka will go on to lose – there is not much doubt about that. But a performance like this gives heart, gives courage to the supporters who follow with unwavering passion.
Of course, Hardik Pandya had the last laugh, getting Mendis out on 110. But he has laid down a marker. If the rest of Sri Lanka’s batsman and Karunaratne can follow that marker, no one will grudge them this loss.