Sri Lanka clearly hasn’t learned the art of putting the boot in when it can.
With the toss won and the innings off to a flier courtesy the openers putting on 93 runs inside 20 overs, the visitors had the opportunity to send India on a leather hunt. In the event, it ended the day having lost too many wickets; the innings tripped over its own inability to strike the right balance between momentum and substance.
The wicket at the Brabourne Stadium had turn. Not the kind of slow turn seen at Ahmedabad and Kanpur, either – here the turn was quick, pronounced, and accompanied by bounce whenever the spinners looped the ball up and allowed it to bite the deck.
So pronounced was the possibility of spin that Harbhajan, who typically starts with a flat, quick line, tossed the first ball of his first over up above the eye line, as early as the 16th over, and got it to drift across the batsman, bite, and turn.
The spinner went on to have one of his best days of this tour, clearly revelling in conditions that gave him considerable bang for the buck. Pragyan Ojha got sharp turn as well, but he is the more relentlessly attacking bowler, and that style is guaranteed to bleed runs on first/second day tracks absent top notch support in the field.
Spinners bowling on a first day wicket, no matter how amenable to turn, are wholly reliant on their mates in the field to keep the pressure on – and it is here that the Indian fielders let Harbhajan and Ojha down. Dilshan showed the way, and the rest caught on – throughout the day, the standout feature of the Lankan innings was their willingness to tip-tap and run, a practice that inevitably led to misfields. Worse, it took the edge off the bowling, as neither spinner found it possible to bowl a series of deliveries to any one batsman.
Vital stat: the first 80 overs of the Lankan innings saw 123 singles in a score of 329/6.
With all that they had going for them, the Lankan batsmen underperformed. Dilshan, who returned to form with a fluent century, got one of the most godawful umpiring decisions in recent memory, but his mates by and large gave it away after having the bowling at their mercy.
Paranavitana got a good ball from Harbhajan with loop and sharp turn that defeated the attempted cover drive, but Kumar Sangakkara played without the calm he is noted for, seemed ill at ease against both spinners, and ended up edging a delivery going down leg side; Mahela Jayawardene gave an object lesson on how to counter swing and seam, and then slapped a badly conceived pull to backward square; Samaraweera’s hard hands on a defensive prod was very un-Lankan in its execution; and Prasanna Jayawardene, after taking Ojha for successive fours at the start of the 80th over, gave it away with a badly conceived charge that saw him beaten for flight and holing out to mid on. If the Lankans ended the day not needing to hide their blushes, much of the credit goes to Dilshan’s craft at the top of the order, and Angelo Mathews’ fluidity in the lower middle order.
Test cricket is largely a game of managing time. By scoring at a cracking pace almost throughout the day, the Lankans sought to buy time for their two spinners [and Sangakkara might yet have reason to rue leaving out Ajanta Mendis, as and when India bats in the fourth innings] to take out India’s in-form line-up twice. But by losing eight wickets in the day, the team ruined its own strategy: to really exploit the toss and the conditions to optimum, the visitors had to be looking at a score in excess of 500-550; the loss of three top middle order batsmen for a combined score of 48 negated that possibility.
For India, the fielding was uniformly patchy; ditto the bowling. Zaheer Khan seems yet to strike mid-season form. He is a rhythm bowler who, just now, is clearly off beat; when that happens he tends to try too hard, and ends up going all over the place. Sreesanth had a curate’s egg of a day, good only in patches when he throttled back his ambition and let motor memory do all the work. A classic example was his second spell, which he began with a near-unplayable series of outswingers and deliveries that jagged back in off the seam, but then ambition got the better of him, he changed his line and took to bowling from well wide of the crease, and ended up losing control and efficacy.
On balance, India will be the happier side going in at close. Lanka looks to end well short of the 500 that is a minimum requirement batting first on this track; an added plus is that the Indian batsmen will have maximum use of the good batting conditions of day two and to an extent day three. The one consolation for the Lankans is that the wicket is turning — and the Lankan fielding is streets ahead of India’s.