A day before this third Test, on Friday, India’s afternoon practice session had been washed out. Once the rain stopped and the sun came out, the grounds men at Pallekele International Cricket Stadium swung into action. Giving them instructions were chief selector Sanath Jayasuriya and senior members of the Sri Lankan team management. First the lush-green pitch was brushed, then mowed, shaved again and then brushed one final time as a bag full of grass was taken off. Left behind was a flat, batting beauty with a few cracks showing.
India duly won the toss and opted to bat. Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul put that advantage to good use, as the Lankan attack was steamrolled once again. The duo put on the highest opening stand on Lankan soil in Test cricket - 188 - beating a 24-year old record. The devil is in the detail herein. India raced to 50 before the 10th over was up, and they reached 100 off 107 balls. Rahul never got out of second gear and sleepwalked his way to another Test half-century. Dhawan, who spot in the Test side was under question a month ago, scored his second Test hundred in three innings, scoring at strike-rate of 96.74.
A new tactic?
You want to take a breather here and wonder. Maybe, just maybe, the Lankan bowlers and fielders wanted to stop for a moment and think out loud too. This young team has been chasing leather this whole series – India scored 600, 240/3 and 622/9 in three innings in Galle and SSC. They have batted for 321.5 overs, and been in the field for more – 344.1 overs – before this Test even began. At what point do you start considering alternative tactical ploys?
The underlying question is about the state of the pitch. Never mind where India ended up at stumps on day one, but the fact that Sri Lankan team management scrubbed grass clear off the pitch indicated a defensive outlook. It wasn’t in sync with what captain Dinesh Chandimal had said in the pre-match press conference about ‘going hard at India and working out a win against the world’s no.1 ranked side irrespective of the 2-0 score-line’.
While they were totally dependent on winning the toss in this third Test, Lanka’s strategy reeked of fear. Is it the fear of losing? Perhaps, for what is their best chance to beat this well-oiled Indian team? The answer, ask any Lankan fan, and he will name either a square turner or a raging green-top.
It was in 2015 that India were beaten in Galle on a pitch that turned from ball one. In that same series, the third Test at the SSC witnessed a proper green-top and barring Cheteshwar Pujara’s magnificent 145 not out, the rest of India’s strong batting line-up scored 167 runs.
So again, ask this question – what brings these two sides, divided by an ever-growing chasm in quality, on level pegging? The answer is in the wickets that are laid out, yet for the third Test running, this aspect was not factored in as Lanka went about chasing leather once again.
During the Champions Trophy in England, there was a lot of hullabaloo over how flat-tracks and lack of swing from the white ball meant that ODIs were quickly becoming monotonous. The same can be said of T20 cricket as well – during the IPL season, almost every alternate game feels like you have seen it before.
Test cricket may not be dying just yet, but based on the evidence of this series, different facets of the game need to be looked at in a bid to bring in some semblance of equality between two unmatched teams. For, this format needs more attention than either ODIs or T20s.
This, though, delves into a larger debate as to where Test cricket is really heading, and is down to obvious politicking. For players on the field of play, in the immediate scheme of things, it was about how to stop Indian batsmen from scoring and perhaps also get a wicket or two. As it happened, the two openers helped out in this bid.
Like a king
“If you bat like a king, then you should also get out like a king. You should not be dismissed like a soldier. If you have made runs aggressively, then you will get out that way too. We got out playing our shots,” said Dhawan after the day’s play. Lanka got a sniff when Dhawan and Rahul gave away their wickets, but the tactic from the Indian dressing room didn’t change.
This first-day pitch didn’t have any demons in it, yet the Indian batsmen were forced to be pensive in the footwork and two-minded in their approach to the spinners. The dismissals of Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane are clear indicators of this. The skipper was trying again and again to reach the length of delivery from the spinners. And this is how he got out as well - trying to reach out and edging behind.
Rahane played all across the wrong line, going for the turn, when there was none to be had. Malinda Pushpakumara may not have reached Rangana Herath’s level yet, but through the SSC Test and on day one here, he has shown a great resolve to bowl consistently and hit one length. It is seen in his economy – 2.22 – whilst others were being taken for runs by the Indian batsmen.
Pushpakumara’s control allowed ‘chinaman’ Lakshan Sandakan to make a mark as well. Dhawan mentioned that his googly was tough to pick up, and using his variations, the leg-spinner made Cheteshwar Pujara’s stay in the middle very uncomfortable. The crux of day one in Pallekele was in these three dismissals. Sandakan and Pushpakumara gave away only 48 runs against these three middle-order batsmen, and sent all of them back to the pavilion.
Forget the pitch. Forget whatever has happened in this series thus far. For once, Sri Lanka almost bridged the gap to India and indeed came out on top.