You spend hours planning for outside edges and lbws, pegging away just outside off and breaking backs bowling bouncers, sweating, despairing, hoping for slip fielders to take the catches, praying the umpires agree with your lbw appeals, debating over DRS and no-balls, and then a Test turns on a reverse-sweep. Coming together at five down with 78 overs to survive, captain Angelo Mathews and debutant Kusal Perera kept India at bay for 38.1 overs and 135 runs, giving them an outside chance at an improbable win – still 144 away with 40 overs to go – but Perera fell to a reverse-sweep four overs before new ball and tea.
India’s dying spirits – they were no doubt reminded of Johannesburg, Wellington and Galle over the last 20 months – found just the resuscitation they needed. With the first over with the new ball, Ishant Sharma, the much-maligned fast bowler, the hero of two of India’s last three Test wins, and in the spotlight for his behaviour, removed Mathews for a valiant 110 to register his 200th Test wicket and pave the way for India’s first away series win in four years and their first in Sri Lanka in 22 years. That he did so on cue and with a really full ball, two feats he has notoriously found difficult to muster over his career, will make the lbw sweeter.
There were important lessons in there. Ishant’s eighth no-ball of the match, bowled in his first over of the day, had Mathews caught on 25 but India heard the heart-breaking call of no-ball even before they could go up in appeal. Later in the day, with nothing going for India and the sun beating down on their heads, Amit Mishra had Mathews plumb lbw on 93, except that umpire Nigel Llong thought the sound from the bat hitting the ground was an inside edge. Umpires are human, they make mistakes, which is why we have DRS in Test cricket. In Test cricket not involving India, that is. Had India opted even for an abridged DRS without relying on the predictive tracking technology, they would have won the series 3-0.
It was not all umpiring decisions that denied India the clean sweep. Dinesh Chandimal’s counterattack in Galle played a big part in that grand comeback. One of the features of that comeback, which put India off their plans, was the reverse-sweep, a shot that Perera – who followed in Chandimal’s footsteps to become only the second wicketkeeper to debut with twin fifties – played and will have people crucifying him for it. Perception of risk, though, has changed in modern cricket.
Perera is predominantly a right-hander, and used to bat right-handed until he decided to emulate Sanath Jayasuriya when he was around 10. He plays the reverse-sweep well, and Sri Lanka had got this far in the fourth innings by not letting India bowl the lines they wanted, by keeping the scoreboard moving. Just when, five overs before the new ball, India started to bowl at the pads of the batsmen with predominantly leg-side fields, Perera looked to keep the pressure on by exploiting the field. He made a sweet connection too, but found to perfection the man accustomed to getting out minutes before intervals, Rohit Sharma, at point.
It was until then a testing toil for India, who didn’t do much wrong but found themselves helpless against a slowing-down pitch and resolute defence from Mathews and Perera. A mark of how well India bowled was in the first session when they got just two wickets, but always looked close to taking a wicket. For the first 90 minutes the quicks operated. Umesh Yadav got rid of Kaushal Silva, yet again with a bouncer, and even though he didn’t take a wicket Ishant kept testing the batsmen and conceded just nine runs in six overs.
The introduction of spin brought no relief, and Lahiru Thirimanne, who had batted for 16.5 overs with Mathews, fell in R Ashwin’s first over to an extraordinary catch. His slip catching still far from perfect, KL Rahul was a different fielder under the helmet. Thirimanne saw a length ball on the pads, closed the face, and bobbed a leading edge up above silly point. Rahul rose with the ball, stuck his right hand up, and took the rebound. He was to nearly manufacture another wicket later in the day.
Before that, though, Mathews and Perera reduced India to hoping for extraordinary events. In testing heat and on the final day of a long and disappointing home season, Mathews and Perera concentrated superbly, but also made sure bad balls didn’t go unpunished and in-and-out fields yielded singles. While Mathews is temperamentally suited for such innings, Perera went against his natural game, striking at 66 runs per 100 balls, well short of his 87 in all first-class cricket. The moment of the partnership perhaps was when Perera left alone a ball from Mishra that pitched on off stump just to show the bowler he had picked the wrong’un, a delivery Perera’s team-mates have struggled to pick against both Mishra and Yasir Shah.
For Mathews, who had come in for criticism for not having bowled his fair share of overs as the third seamer on a seaming pitch and in oppressive humidity, this century was so nearly redemption. His reluctance to bowl might have allowed India to run away with it on the fourth day, but the highest run-getter of the series pitched his tent and hardly made mistakes. There was one when he poked at that Ishant no-ball, but he began to leave really well, and whenever he defended he did so off the middle of the bat. When, on 67, he flicked Mishra away, looking for an easy single, only to see Rahul field it at short leg; Mathews’ full-length lunge back into the crease summed up his determination.
With a history of inclement weather and poor light in the final session, this was getting too close for comfort for India. They were left needing something similarly extraordinary towards the end of the second session, and found it through the Perera reverse-sweep. The jury will forever remain out on that shot.