Tuesday, July 27, 2010

India are relying on the Viru plan

Four years ago, the now retired Sri Lanka spin wizard Muttiah Muralitharan warned the curator at the Sinhalese Sports Club to produce a pitch that would give bowlers some hope.

Midway through day two of this second Test, with Mahela Jayawardene posting yet another venue record, breaking Sir Donald Bradman’s most centuries as a venue, the thought did cross the mind that next to Motera and Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore, SSC now ranks as of those grounds where they know how to take the term “competitive” out of Test cricket.

It may be a harsh judgement; after all, there have been only six sessions so far. But with only two wickets falling on the second day – four so far in 180 overs - while there was yet another celebration of the Kumar Sangakkara/Jayawardene batting show at the SSC, and 425 runs scored, the avalanche of runs is hardly surprising. Nor the thought that this is “a pitch from hell,” the bowlers are in for a lot of exercise as are the fieldsmen on a fruitless leather-hunting safari.

What can be argued perhaps is how, with no Lasith Malinga in the Sri Lanka bowling attack, and some wariness about the Muralitharan back up plan, Ajantha Mendis, the realisation that India may struggle a little batting second on a pitch scuffed up forced a rethink in strategy.

This is where it may backfire. Enter Virender Sehwag and the warning signs are already there. India at the close are 95 without loss, in reply to Sri Lanka’s 642 for four, declared, with the Delhi bazooka machine blazing away with shots that have smashed through the Sri Lanka bowling defences.

His undefeated innings of 64 at the close left anyone who has watched him at close hand before would tell you “beware of the Viru factor”. It is his 22nd Test half-century, at a run a ball, explaining why his ability to put the bowler under pressure is important in India’s gameplan.

And at least in batting they have a strategy: it’s the Sehwag crunch and was in display here late in the afternoon. The way he dismissed new ball bowler Dammika Prasad in the first couple of overs, crunching the bowler off the backfoot with precision drives and placement, left Sangakkara in no doubt that India had launched their challenge in blistering fashion.

Or, as one New Delhi colleague smiled at Galle in 2008, “Never fear when Viru is near”. Good advice, too for those who enjoy his style of batting; how he uses his feet to get to the spinner and deft wristwork steering the ball into the gaps. Bowlers don’t enjoy it, but spectators do, and neutral ones as myself even more as it creates expectation.

In Galle there was a hesitancy about his batting in both innings; in the first, despite the century he threw it all away with a nothing shot that cost him his wicket to a nothing delivery. It explained a certain frustration.

Sri Lanka’s bowling plans were in trouble from the ninth over when Angelo Mathews was given an official warning by Australian umpire, Rod Tucker. The bowler was cutting across the pitch and that scuffs it up even more. It is a naughty habit, designed to give some spinners an area of extra rough and Tucker, an all-rounder too in his day for New South Wales, is all too well aware of such tricks.

While the Viru show filled the latter afternoon, give a thought to former Sri Lanka captain Mahela Jayawardene. He surpassed a record held by legendary Don Bradman with his 10th Test century at the same venue. Bradman managed nine at Melbourne in his Test career, spread over 10 matches.

While he was pleased to achieve such a milestone in his career, the 33-year-old stylish batsman, when asked his opinion, was quick to point out the reality from the fiction.

“I think we need to get something straight here,” he said, he nodded thoughtfully. “I needed twenty-three Tests to get there and Sir Donald (Bradman) managed nine or ten in MCG” - (it was 11 Tests) – “That explains the difference. I am pleased that I have broken the record, but I don’t think you can compare what he (Bradman) did in his day and what we are doing right now. He is a legend, and we need to remember that.

“But the record will definitely be a moment for me to remember,” he added with the sort of care and attention he applies to his batting.

“It is something so special, but also, I love to play here, it is my home ground. I grew up playing here. It is fun play before the club members. It is something special. But also, you have to be very humble when you break something like Sir Dons record.”

Thinking ahead to day three of the Test, and where Sehwag needs to give India a head start if they are to make any sort of challenge, Jayawardene is full of ideas, as a former captain should be.

“We have the runs on the board, so our guys will go on the attack,” he said. “At the same time we know India have some quality batsmen who could bit for long periods of time. So we need to make sure that we don’t give away too many easy runs and control Viru and other batsmen.

“We have three days of play left and just needed a couple of opportunities to run through their side. The game is in our hands. We need to put in lot of efforts. The surface is still pretty good, and we just need to be smart about it and try to get the first ten wickets and then see how we can get the next ten.

“I think our two fast bowlers with the old ball can reverse the ball quite a bit. I think that is one of the reasons why we have played these two guys (Prasad and Dilhara Fernando). They have good pace. They both can reverse the ball. That is something we can work on.

“Suraj Mandiv looked a bit nervous because he was playing the first Test. But he is a very dangerous bowler, especially if he can get the bounce and spin out of this surface. And then there is Ajantha Mendis, coming back and I know that he is very eager to do well and create opportunities as well. So we have to make sure that we stick to our game plan and execute them well.”


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