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Under-strength India pulls off a hard-earned victory

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India finally broke past the Sri Lankan domination with a hard-earned 3-wicket win in the second ODI at Dambulla which turned out to be another struggle for the batsmen. This time the cards were reversed, it was the turn of the Sri Lankan batting to crumble under testing conditions. The hosts gave a small target of 143 which they defended right till the last run. India barely got to victory but it was going to be a major boost to them going into the remaining three games. The star of the day was Zaheer Khan, who made the ball to talk literally.

It was another sunny day at Dambulla and for the Indian team, it was a big challenge to come back in this series after a morale-shattering defeat in the first ODI. The pitch for this game was a different one and promised to provide more runs that the other pitch. The visitors wanted to bat first, but had to change their decision as their inform opener Gautam Gambhir was ruled out with a bad neck. As such they were without Virender Sehwag, who is nursing an ankle injury. The coin rolled in Dhoni’s favour for the second time and he said that he was forced to field first because of his limited resources. Subramaniam Badrinath was given his much deserved ODI Debut while swing bowler Praveen Kumar came in for Pragyan Ojha. Sri Lanka rested Chaminda Vaas, who is having a niggle and he was replaced by speedster Dilhara Fernando. It took just the six balls for Zaheer to strike gold by cleaning up the defences of Kumar Sangakkara (2) in the 2nd over of the match.

Zaheer Khan was superbly complemented by Praveen Kumar, who stuck to his basics in swinging the ball in both directions and most importantly hitting the right lines and lengths. In the 6th over, Zaheer struck twice in three balls to force Mahela Jayawardene and Chamara Kapugedera to edge him behind. If that wasn’t enough damage, in the next over, Praveen Kumar joined the party with a good length delivery that kicked up to catch the slice of Chamara Silva’s blade to give a dolly to point. Sri Lanka slipped quickly to 11 for 4 with runs hard to come by. But there was every possibility of an Asia Cup Final repeat with Sanath Jayasuriya still in. However, this was Dambulla which provided enough sideways movement for the seamers. And Sanath succumbed to a sharp incoming delivery from Zaheer that beat him for pace and movement off the track. Jayasuriya didn’t cause any damage as he could manage just a boundary in his 37-ball stay which produced 13.

It was a day when almost everything went so right for Dhoni’s team. Even an otherwise un-penetrative Irfan Pathan found a wicket when Tillakaratne Dilshan’s flick cum pull was converted into a stunning catch at deep mid wicket. While most people were thinking that Dilshan’s shot would die down before the fielder, Badri had other ideas as he threw his body forward full length to take an absolutely clean catch. The situation was apt for India to bowl out Sri Lanka for their lowest ever total. Some poor captaincy decisions from Dhoni didn’t make that possible and he let the next pair of Nuwan Kulasekara and Thilan Thushara get off the hook. To Dhoni’s defence, Kulasekara had survived an lbw scare and then a straightforward edge at slip that was put down by Rohit Sharma. The pair of Kulasekara and Thushara went onto put up their best batting show at the international level to get some important runs for Sri Lanka. Thushara (44 from 46 balls with 7 fours) got his runs quickly through some calculated lofted shots and cuts and in an attempt to get another boundary holed out to deep mid wicket off Praveen Kumar’s bowling. Praveen Kumar in the same over struck again by having Kulasekara (25 from 62 balls with 2 fours) to flick his low full toss straight into the hands of short mid wicket. After that there was no more resistance coming from the 9, 10 and 11 of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka were bowled out for 142 in 38.3 overs. Zaheer finished with 9.5-3-21-4 and Praveen Kumar made his selection count with his 10-2-34-3.

India had to come out to bat a tricky period of around 25 minutes before lunch. Those 25 minutes made the match poised as Nuwan Kulasekara came up with a double blow which included the wickets of make shift opener Irfan Pathan (caught edging to slip) and Suresh Raina, caught in the crease by an incoming delivery. India were 17 for 2 in 5 overs and the match could go either way because Sri Lanka had the destructive Ajantha Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan. After lunch, Mahela threw the ball to Mendis straightaway, but that was only for an over and he reverted back to his pace combination of Kulasekara and Thushara much to the relief of Yuvraj. Kulasekara and Thushara went onto bowl back to back maidens but in their next overs, got some beating from Yuvraj and opener Virat Kohli. In the second over of his second spell, Ajantha Mendis got the wicket of Yuvraj thrice in three innings to break what was turning out to be a dangerous 3rd wicket partnership. Yuvraj (20 from 32 balls with 4 fours) was struck dead in front of middle in his attempted forward defence when he failed to read the leg break from Ajantha.

Fortunately enough for India, they were not chasing a big total and the runs were coming at a decent pace from the quicker bowlers. Virat Kohli, just into his second ODI showed good defence and once he got set showed that he could hit the ball very hard. The youngster fell a victim of his own aggressiveness and paid price by going for an ambitious drive on the up which went in the air and straight to extra covers. Kohil couldn’t have asked for a better start to his innings which he could have so easily converted into a bigger one. His hard work counted to 37 runs from 67 balls with 6 fours. It was the 20th over that this wicket fell and a ball later after Kohli’s wicket came a harsh lbw decision from Umpire Billy Doctrove that shocked Rohit Sharma, who just had a 2-ball stay. Rohit Sharma was struck high on his knee roll by an incoming delivery from Thushara and the lbw decision wasn’t convincing as it was an uneven pitch where some balls shoot up and some don’t. Incredibly for Mahela Jayawardene, he had brought Thilan Thushara only to felicitate change of ends for his two spinners, but the left armer gave him the bonus of two quick wickets to make it 75 for 5.

India were staring defeat now, they were left with just their Captain MS Dhoni and debutant S Badrinath. It was just a matter of keeping the heads down and batting out sensibly with just another 68 to get. Badri is a batsman who has got already got 15 100s at the first class level and since his domestic debut in 2000/01 must have surely played a lot of quality spinners. This situation was no different and he was up to the task as he got well forward to most deliveries from Ajantha Mendis. There was hardly any problem for him and his Captain at the other end was so cool under pressure. Dhoni kept it very simple, lunged forward on several occasions and worked the ball towards the off side and whenever it was a little short, he would wait on the backfoot to play some jabs to the off side. The running between the wickets was world class between Dhoni and Badri, something that would make Bevan or Jonty Rhodes proud of. The two right handers kept on getting the target down comfortably.

Even when Dhoni was cleaned up by an off cutter from Dilhara in the 36th over, the match was still in India’s hands with just another 8 to get with four wickets in hand. Dhoni made an industrious 39 from 54 balls with 3 fours to star in what was going to be the match winning stand of 60 for the 6th wicket in about 16 overs. Although India lost another wicket in the form of Harbhajan Singh because of Mendis, victory wasn’t difficult to achieve as shown by a sensible finish from Badrinath in the company of Zaheer Khan, who survived 10 deliveries without any trouble to let the former to wrap the match in the 40th over. Badrinath ended up with 27 from 57 balls with a four, it was a strike rate of 47.38, but then it was a day when each and every forward defence off the likes of Mendis and Murali was as good as gold! Sri Lanka were terrific in making a match out of it, Ajantha Mendis continued to mesmerize the Indians, this time though it wasn’t his best as he got 2 for 22 in 10 overs. Murali remained wicketless.

Zaheer Khan was obviously going to be the Man of the Match. Both teams now head into a very interesting situation from the 3rd ODI onwards. The remaining three games are all day/night affairs and are to be played at the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo. This means that the totals the batsmen will be looking at would be around 300 and that is going to be huge contrast from the 140s that have been put on at Dambulla.