Lack of synergy pegs Sri Lanka back


Aryan Surana

The batting card at the draw of stumps on day one in Mohali doesn't show a single-digit score. Although the pitch was selectively watered to have barren rectangles at either end and a centre featuring a greenish hue, there wasn't much movement on offer. In such batter-friendly conditions, the art of stacking up dot balls and converting the resultant pressure into wickets becomes sacrosanct, but Sri Lanka's depleted bowling resources saw them leak 357 in 85 overs at an alarming rate of 4.2.

While India went in with three specialist spinners and two pacers, Sri Lanka had part-timers Dhananjaya de Silva and Charith Asalanka helping out Lasith Embuldenya in the spin department. It was, however, a case of compulsion rather than choice as off-spinner Ramesh Mendis was injured with a fractured hand and picking another left-arm in Praveen Jayawickrama would have shorn the attack of variety. And as if the jerry-rigged spin trio wasn't enough, Sri Lanka had to deal with the profligacy of Lahiru Kumara whose economy is flirting with five.

Sri Lanka's inability to work in synergy as a bowling unit meant partnerships blossomed, with three of them in excess of 50 and the alliance between Ravindra Jadeja and Rishabh Pant breaching the three-figure mark. India weren't always in the ascendancy, in fact they had lost Virat Kohli and Hanuma Vihari in quick succession to be reduced to 175/4 at one point, but the mild nature of the opposition invariably paved the way for rebuilding efforts.

India had been off to a flyer – 52 of the initial 66 runs had come off boundaries – before Rohit Sharma fell hooking the bouncer seventh time since April 2018. Vihari, jogging out for his second innings at home in a 14-Tests old career, was hurried in defence on the first few balls but tucked one round the corner with graceful serenity. Suranga Lakmal was in pursuit of the magic ball that darts away from leg-stump but it didn't move a trifle and Vihari was neat off the hips. Then came the shot of the morning, a firm push that threaded the gap between extra cover and mid-off to leave India's new No.3 brimming with confidence.

Dimuth Karunaratne introduced spin in the 13th over from the Shivalik end and it didn't take long for Embuldenya, the left-arm orthodox who has burst on the scene with five fifers in 13 Tests, to make an impact. He had Mayank Agarwal playing for the turn when there was none, taking his tally to 63 wickets. Sri Lanka's elation, though, was short-lived as Kohli, the 12th Indian cricketer to earn 100 Test caps, announced his arrival with a ramrod straight drive.

That the hosts had been cruising all this while had psychologically put Karunaratne on the defensive as he refrained from giving Kumara a packed slip cordon or stationing a forward short leg when Vihari was looking clearly uncomfortable against deliveries jagging into his ribs. Perhaps, he had little faith in Kumara's consistency.

On the other side of Lunch, Vihari greeted Embuldeniya with a four down the ground while Kohli got those strong wrists into action to whip Lakmal who was trying to catch him plumb on the shuffle. When Embuldeniya dropped it short, Kohli was onto the backfoot in a flash, nailing the pull in front of square. Although the bowler did have the last laugh when Kohli was undone by a peach, limiting the partnership to 90. It was an ingenious set-up by Embuldeniya as he pitched a couple of balls in the exact same spot, with the wicket-taking delivery bowled slower through the air to give Kohli the impression of a slightly shorter length. The plan worked like a breeze as he hung back to be castled after presenting solid frontfoot blocks in the lead-up.

Embuldeniya may have improvised with his trajectory to outfox the man of the moment, but he bowled the 29th no-ball of his career today, which means no spinner has overstepped as many times as he has since his debut. Talking about illegitimate stuff, Vihari had grown anxious after he was reprieved off a no-ball by Dhananjaya de Silva at cover point, and played a loose drive away from the body only to be done in by the inward movement as the inside edge shattered the sticks. There was a hundred for the taking, but Vihari's 58 brought a sense of consummate calm to the dressing room, much like the Pujara of yore.

"Felt good going out in the middle. I was batting well, and I had a good preparation. Great opportunity batting at number three for India. I am happy to bat wherever the team wants me to, but my most preferred position is number three, I have done it in first-class cricket. I thought initially the ball was coming onto the bat well," Vihari said at the end of day's play.

He was in awe of how the enterprising Rishabh Pant blew Sri Lanka to smithereens soon thereafter. To put things in perspective, he galloped from 50 to 82 in 10 balls. "It was difficult to time the ball after it gets old but Rishabh is a different player. We all know how he bats and when it comes off, it's a special innings, and it was a special innings today,'' Vihari added.

Pant subjected Embuldeniya, who had appreciable figures of 2/62 after 20 overs, to a leather hunt as he splurged 22 off his 27th. Nine boundaries and four sixes ushered India's game-changer to 96, but an innocuous ball from Lakmal clipped the zing bails to life. It was the fifth time Rishabh Pant had succumbed to nervous 90s, and the irony is that you'll be hard-pressed to find the word 'nervous' in his dictionary.

Out of the 14 instances India have scored 350+ runs on the opening day of a Test, six had Sri Lanka at the receiving end. Given Jadeja is unbeaten on 45 and Ravichandran Ashwin rediscovered his batting mojo at the Wanderers, Sri Lanka could be in for a grind tomorrow as well. Do they have the wherewithal to stage a comeback? There's no reason why they can't if they hunt in a pack.