The Asia Cup was a chance for India to wipe the slate clean after the horrors of Australia, and they began their campaign by playing to their strengths – batting the opposition out of the game. Centuries by Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli took India to 304, and though the efforts of their bowlers cannot be ignored, crucial wickets were gifted away by Sri Lanka. It was an underwhelming performance by a Sri Lankan batting line-up that stretches till No.9, which in some ways was a spin-off from their performance in the loss in the third CB series final against Australia.
The tweaked batting Powerplay rule – mandatory before the 40th over – was brought about to make captains think more. In many games since its introduction, including this one, it turned out to be the game-changer. Sri Lanka were still well-placed at the end of the 35th over, needing 109 off the last 15 overs with seven wickets in hand. The loss of Kumar Sangakkara off the first ball of the field restrictions was the start of the turnaround for India; they picked up three more wickets for 31 runs in that period. Irfan Pathan picked up four wickets, including Mahela Jayawardene, to give India a fairly comprehensive win in the final analysis, though at one stage it looked a lot closer.
India owed their resurgence to their two most in-form batsmen from Australia – Kohli and Gambhir. One was recently made the vice-captain, the other had the same post taken away from him. Any simmering tension, fictional or not, was barely evident as they added 205 to give India the kind of prolonged authority rarely seen when in Australia.
India managed only two 100-plus stands in the CB Series, that too in the same game, in Hobart. The common thread between the two games was Kohli. This innings wasn’t as manic, but the effect was still demoralising for Sri Lanka, who took control at the start of the innings but had to wait an eternity to strike again.
The departure from Australian pitches to friendlier “home” conditions was evident in the way Gambhir dabbed and poked with regularity to third man. The same shot, which had him caught behind so often in Australia, fetched him several singles, thanks to the relatively lower bounce that suited his style.
The pace wasn’t electric, but steady. Gambhir and Kohli had to be watchful against packed off-side fields, typical of Jayawardene’s captaincy. Short cover and short point were placed to check the cover drive but in due course the pair managed to work their way around those fields, shuffling and nudging it to the on side to pick up the singles.
Gambhir’s stint wasn’t flawless, though. He was dropped on 36 and survived a run-out opportunity on 94, Dinesh Chandimal the culprit on both occasions. Those lapses overshadowed a more committed display in the field at the start of the innings, when the run-rate was just over four an over.
Apart from the late cuts, Gambhir used his feet well against the spinners, lofting over extra cover and down to the straight boundary. Hitting in the air was a method the batsmen had to employ as several drives along the ground found the fielders. Kohli kept busy at the crease, rotating the strike to ensure India didn’t get bogged down against the spinners.
The period between the second and third Powerplays – overs 21 to 35 – produced 87 runs. Only five fours were struck in that period but the pair wore Sri Lanka down with singles – 53 of them – and six twos. Jayawardene went defensive, pushing the fielders back. Kohli ensured he punished the bad deliveries from the spinners and even produced a reverse-sweep, which raced to third man.
Both batsmen reached their centuries in the 42nd over, and their contrasting celebrations were compelling to watch. Kohli controlled his emotions by merely gesturing to his team-mates with a big smile. Gambhir, however, didn’t restrain himself as he punched the air, removed his helmet and yelled out something to the dressing-room. His emotional reaction signalled the end of a long wait to reach three-figures.
Both departed in the following over, holing out to the deep. The double-strike – in the 43rd over – didn’t give Sri Lanka much respite, as MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina plundered some wayward bowling at the death.
Jayawardene’s visually pleasing half-century gave Sri Lanka the platform to beat their previous highest successful chase against India, but his team needed him to stay on longer. His innings was aggression mixed with serenity. He showed his class by his innovativeness, forcing Dhoni to constantly make field changes to plug the gaps during the first 10 overs. That was a moral victory for Jayawardene, seeing his opposing number gesticulating to his fielders despite the cushion of 304 runs.
With a keen eye for where the fielders were placed, Jayawardene picked his spots in style, including a lapped six over fine leg, a delicate late cut and pleasing drives wide of point with little effort.
Tillakaratne Dilshan perished by slapping straight to midwicket, the first of Sri Lanka’s giveaways. Sangakkara started pushing the ball into the gaps, even chipping down to loft Ravindra Jadeja over deep midwicket for a six.
Both Sangakkara and Jayawardene were visibly upset with themselves when they got out. When Pathan returned for a new spell, Jayawardene tried to disturb his rhythm by trying to dab one to third man. It resulted in a tame edge to Dhoni and his frustration was palpable. The pressure increased a touch on Sangakkara when Chandimal was bowled giving R Ashwin the charge, and his own attempt at giving his team the momentum in the 36th over caused Sri Lanka’s steady fall.
A few clean blows by Nuwan Kulasekara and Farveez Maharoof gave Sri Lanka hope, but they couldn’t get on top of Vinay Kumar and Pathan, who bowled with far greater control at the death than their opponents.