Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Calm Jayawardene takes Sri Lanka home

Sri Lanka 249 for 6 (Jayawardene 71*, Sangakkara 55) beat India 245 (Raina 106, Kulasekara 4-48) by four wickets

Historically, when it comes to finals of triangular tournaments, Sri Lanka have had the upper hand over India, who in the last decade succeeded in winning just four in 21 finals. A familiar tale panned out in Dhaka, where a frenetic start was followed by an enthralling finish and the result was yet another tournament win for Sri Lanka over India.

Of all the individual contributions that were spread across 96.5 overs of fluctuating cricket in Dhaka, the one that towered over all others was a 71. Those were the runs scored by Mahela Jayawardene, and it undermined the importance of his surprise call-up to the squad midway through the tri-series. Building on the good work of Sri Lanka's bowlers, especially the Man of the Match Nuwan Kulasekara, Jayawardene smoothed over two spin-induced wobbles and paced the chase precisely to steer them home with nine balls to spare on a chilly evening.

Suresh Raina's first ODI century against serious opposition - his previous two were against Hong Kong and Bangladesh - had boosted India from 60 for 5 to a respectable 245 but they were a strike bowler short after Ashish Nehra took a wicket and left the field. Harbhajan Singh produced two openings with his tidy offspin yet Jayawardene was flawless in his match-winning effort. And to think he'd initially been ruled out of the series through injury.

When India dismissed the well-set pair of Tillakaratne Dilshan and Kumar Sangakkara in the space of 14 deliveries on a rare dew-free evening, their total seemed around 40 runs more than it actually was. India turned in a fighting performance after Sangakkara and Dilshan fell, but fittingly it was Jayawardene, Sri Lanka's most experienced player, who anchored the chase.

After Nehra sent back Tharanga for his second consecutive duck, only to hobble off with a dodgy groin after bowling eight deliveries, Zaheer Khan and Sreesanth, especially, struggled with their bearings and Sangakkara, with very good use of the wrists, latched on readily. He was away with two expertly placed boundaries, just using the pace and putting width away through the off-side arc, and followed those up with two glorious drives past extra cover and point. With Sangakkara striking the ball sweetly, Dilshan set about erecting a platform that would see Sri Lanka through.

However, 93 for 1 soon turned into 109 for 3, with spin giving India some hope. MS Dhoni turned to Yuvraj Singh for the 17th over, and it took him one delivery to raise India's spirits. Dilshan, on 49, tried to cut but the ball stayed low and Dhoni made no mistake holding the bottom edge. In the 20th over Sangakkara, who had raised his half-century off just 48 balls, was tempted by a loopy one from Harbhajan Singh that forced him back and then drew the edge to slip.

Boundaries dried up and the tension was palpable, as was perhaps the batsmen's surprise at the minimal effect the dew had. Where cuts and glances had been abundant, suddenly hard-handed chops to backward point and inside edges off hurried drives became frequent. There was big turn for Harbhajan and Dhoni threw in a leg gully to go with a slip.

But Jayawardene is just the man you need to walk in with the asking rate under control and a batsman in good nick at the other end. He aided Sri Lanka's chase with customary effectiveness: a forward press here, a clipped single there, a deft boundary here, a cheeky two there. It was typical Jayawardene - aware of what the situation demanded and knowing which bowlers to take runs off and how.

Having eased the pressure with a lovely dab wide of backward point for four, Thilan Samaraweera failed to spot Ravindra Jadeja's arm ball and dragged it onto his stumps. That wicket snapped a 48-run partnership, but few circumstances ruffle Jayawardene and he ensured he was around till the end. Harbhajan's dismissal of Thilina Kandamby in his second spell didn't bother Jayawardene, who raised his fifty with a characteristic nudge off the pads. A drop by Harbhajan at point when Jayawardene was on 54 was as close as India came to dismissing him. Even the run out of Suraj Randiv with 18 needed from 21 balls wasn't enough. With three successive boundaries off Sreesanth, each played to different areas and with varying degrees of control, Jayawardene sealed the deal.

Jayawardene's innings overshadowed a splendid century earlier in the day. Raina's effort was the fourth-highest ODI score by an Indian at No. 6 and kept India afloat but Sri Lanka finished off well, taking the last four wickets for 32 runs in 5.2 overs. By bowling India out in 48.2 overs with some tight bowling at the end, they were always ahead in the match.

For the first 11 overs of the game on an overcast and mildly chilly Dhaka afternoon, India's innings resembled an automobile ignition on a wintry morning in Denmark. A mishmash of indiscreet shot selection, accurate new-ball bowling, efficient left-arm pace and smart catching is often a recipe for a lop-sided contest and India so nearly made it one. The top order played without purpose - completely failing to make use of the chance to bat time at the crease - and wickets fell in a heap within the first ten overs.

Gautam Gambhir's first-over dismissal - bowled off the pads while trying to glance Kulasekara - set about a brief period of chaos where India's batsmen made the slightly nippy Chanaka Welegedara look like Jeff Thomson. Though hovering in the late 120 to early 130 kmph, Welegedara drew a tentative waft from Kohli and made Yuvraj - who had not batted so early in the innings since November 8 against Australia - look like a novice with two slips licking their lips.

Overconfidence did Dhoni and Virender Sehwag in after a mini-recovery, as both fell to the accurate Kulasekara, and with India struggling at 76 for 5 after 15 overs, this was threatening to be one of the quickest finals in recent memory. Luckily for India, Raina and Jadeja proceeded to buckle down and give the innings some substance.

Raina never allowed the situation get to him. He was alert to the singles, was skillful at finding the gaps, and ran well with Jadeja. A pull through midwicket in the 20th over changed the tempo from caution to slow acceleration, and an open-faced steer between mid-off and extra cover was the shot of the innings. Forty one of Raina's runs came behind the wicket, all through dabs, steers, glances and gentle maneuvering, but it was the crisply struck drives that had spectators cheering. The cover area was regularly threaded, especially as Raina made room to dominate the bowlers.

At 166 for 5 in the 35th over, India appeared on course for 250 but Dilshan trapped Jadeja (38) plumb in front. Raina's attempt to boost the tempo after reaching his century didn't come off, with India losing wickets cheaply. Despite facing 53 dot balls, Raina's strike-rate was a swift 92.17; marvelous considering the mess he had walked out to. His excellent contribution at least gave India something to bowl at, but 245 just wasn't enough to prevent Sri Lanka from securing their first tri-series success since the 2008 Asia Cup - against the same opposition.

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