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Down memory lane in the Lions' den

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India_Sri_Lanka_Cricket_Test_ODI_T20IThe point of departure here is India’s recent rout of Sri Lanka in the Test series under the captaincy of Virat Kohli. Let us go back 32 years to 1985, when Kapil Dev led the first Indian team to tour Sri Lanka, four years after the Lankans had made their debut in Test cricket.

India began with a draw, but lost the second Test by a big margin, and the series thereafter as they could not level it in the third Test. This was the series in which the current Afghanistan coach Lalchand Rajput debuted and opened the innings with Kris Srikkanth; with long-time opener Sunil Gavaskar batting in the middle order.

Amal Silva scored ‘nelson’ in the first innings with Roy Dias missing out on his hundred by 5 runs and Chetan Sharma bagging a 5-for. Srikkanth, Gavaskar and Mohinder Amarnath chipped in with runs and we also curiously had captain Kapil Dev batting at number 9! The Lankans came back strongly with Dias exhibiting his consistency and scoring yet another half century. Kapil promoted himself to number 8 in India’s chase, and top-scored with 78 runs, but that was not enough to take India through, past the pace and bounce of Rumesh Ratnayake (when I recall Rumesh, I tend to remember Malinga; do not know why).

India waited 8 years before touring Sri Lanka again, and this time it was under a new captain – Mohammed Azharuddin. Kapil was still in the squad as an all-rounder close to retirement. India had sweet revenge this time, winning the 3-match series, 1-0. Let us focus on the match India won – with Sidhu and Kambli setting a strong foundation scoring 80-odd and a hundred respectively, and Kumble bagging a 5-for when the Lankans came into bat though their skipper, Ranatunga, resisted with a solid 88.

In their second innings, the Indians piled on the misery, with Tendulkar and Sidhu scoring 104 runs each, and Manoj Prabhakar missing his three-figure score by 5 runs. The Lankans, in their chase, fell woefully short of the 470-odd that India had set as a target. It was Sidhu’s match in a way, but Prabhakar bagged the MoM award for his all-round performance. Readers would recall that he (of the sting-operation-fame/notoriety a few years later) opened both the batting and bowling for India!

The next visit was in 1999 and this time, the team was captained by Sachin Tendulkar. This was a two-Test series which ended in a stalemate – 0-0. None would have forgotten the first Test, in which India would have thought that they had posted a very good total of 500-plus, composed of centuries from Sidhu, Tendulkar and Azharuddin, and a sedate half-century from Dravid.

But they had to swallow the bitter pill when Jayasuriya scored a triple hundred, Mahanama a double hundred, Aravinda de Silva a century, and the young Mahela Jayawerdene on debut and seasoned skipper Ranatunga contributed half-centuries. The Lankans posted a score very close to the four-figure mark!

The second Test was entirely different; not a run-fest by any means. It was played in the same city (Colombo) but on another playground (Colombo has four international cricket stadiums). Aravinda got a century in each innings of this Test match, and Jayasuriya had to endure the agony of being bowled for 199 by Abey Kuruvilla (missing out on a double following a triple in the previous Test). The Indians had to get over 370 runs to win the match, and shepherded by Azhar’s century, they ended 19 runs short of 300 with 5 wickets to spare and another draw under their belt.

In 2001, Sourav Ganguly got the chance to skipper on the island. India went down 2-1 in this keenly fought series. The nemesis this time was Muttaiah Muralitharan. It was an easy kill for the Lankans in the first match, with 6 runs set as the target in the fourth innings. India came back powerfully in the second Test, with Venkatesh Prasad and Zaheer Khan bagging seven wickets each in the match; and Ganguly and Dravid taking India past the line in the final innings.

This joy was short-lived as Atapattu, Samaraweera, Hashan Tilakaratne and Mahela scored hundreds and Murali bagged 11 wickets in the third Test. The Lankans did not have to bat a second time, as India suffered an ignominious innings defeat.

 

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In 2008, seven years after this debacle, Kumble got his opportunity to captain India, towards the end of his international career after touring Sri Lanka under Azhar, Tendulkar and Ganguly. In the first Test, a curious déjà vu was experienced, with Malinda Warnapura, Samaraweera (again), Mahela (again) and another Tilakaratne (Dilshan) scoring hundreds. India crumbled, following on, to lose by an innings and 238 runs. Only VVS offered some resistance to salvage some respect for the visitors. To intensify the feeling of déjà vu, Muralitharan bagged 11 wickets in this one too!

Kumble’s Indians bounced back just as Ganguly’s had done seven years ago in the second Test of that series. Sehwag got to a blistering double hundred which accounted for over 65% of his team’s total score. In response, Warnapura, Mahela and Sangakkara got solid half centuries and Bhajji matched Ajantha Mendis’ 6-for performance. Viru got into the act again in the second innings with a fifty and Bhajji, Kumble and Ishant got together to bring the match home to the Indians. Bhajji ended the Test match with 10 wickets, but Viru deservedly bagged the MoM award.

Well, to keep the déjà vu intact, the Lankans fought back to win the third Test match courtesy a Sangakkara hundred and unplayable bowling from Ajantha Mendis; and clinch this series too.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni was the helmsman in the 2010 tour of Sri Lanka. The first Test saw Sangakkara carrying on from where he had left in the previous series against the Indians on home soil…he scored a century along with opener Paranavitana. Apart from Sehwag, who scored a beautiful hundred (with 19 fours and one six), no Indian batsman could play upto his potential. As a result, India followed on.

This time around, VVS, Tendulkar and Dravid provided some decency to the total, but it was not enough for the Indian bowlers to defend. Sri Lanka romped home. Muralitharan, that man with 800 Test wickets to his name, was the wrecker-in-chief, as he was, on several occasions in his Test career.

India levelled the series in the second Test, Samaraweera and Sehwag scoring hundreds for their respective sides. The spin trio of Ojha, Sehwag and Amit Mishra bagged 3 wickets each, to leave the Indians with 275 to get to win the match. One then saw VVS-magic blossom forth, with 4 wickets down for 60-odd on the board. A sedate, unbeaten century with Suresh Raina chipping in with an unconquered 41, saw India through. Readers would remember several such knocks from the blade of the Very Very Special Laxman.

Come 2015, and the crown was on Virat Kohli’s head. The young captain toured Sri Lanka for the first time. In the first Test, Ashwin bagged 10 wickets and Kohli and Dhawan notched up three-figure scores, but this was all in vain. Rangana Herath’s spin bowling proved to be a little too much for the Indians in the second innings. They folded like a pack of cards.

This was one of those rare Test match losses suffered by Kohli as captain. The Indians came back and literally crushed the Lankans in the second and third Tests. Rahane, Rahul and Ashwin were the stars in the second, and Pujara carried his bat and scored an unbeaten 145 in the third. Ishant bagged a 5-for in the second innings of the third Test, and the Indian middle order clicked wonderfully when the Indians came back to bat – with Rohit Sharma, Ashwin, Mishra, Stuart Binny and Ojha putting on 230 runs among themselves.

Ashwin bagged a 4-for when the Lankans started chasing and restricted them to a total 117 short of what they had to get to win. This was a 2-1 win, and a well-deserved one. Unlike the bygone Test series, the Indians dominated this one after losing the first Test match. The climax built up into mid-2017, when Kohli and his men clinically engineered a total rout of the Lankans, winning 3-0 and then following up with a 5-0 win in the ODI series.

The Lankan selectors have resigned in shock. But these troughs are experienced by all teams off and on. The Lions will lick their wounds, do a lot of soul-searching and start roaring again. Yes, Sangakkara, Dilshan, Muralitharan and Mahela have left behind a vacuum. Herath is an ageing lion, and Malinga has lost his sting. But the Lions will be back, just as the Tigers will keep going from here onwards, bouncing back from the occasional defeats they encounter on the way.

 

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G Venkatesh (born 1972) is a senior lecturer in Energy and Environment, at Karlstad University in S...

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