It is not often that Lasith ‘Slinga’ Malinga gets taken for 24 runs in an over. Indeed, he is so adept at strangulating the life out of an innings, especially in the shorter form of the game, that most sides adopt the tactic of playing him out to avoid damage. Even the mighty Chris Gayle, who is so imperious against every other bowler, looks quite meek in front of Slinga. You must respect him, for your toes sake.
But Slinga is human and is prone to lapses in his performances just like any other fast bowler, albeit much less frequently. And such an instance was yesterday. In the scenic cricket ground in Hobart, Tasmania, Slinga stuttered. He was subsequently dismantled, rearranged and made to look absolutely ridiculous in what was the most dramatic of run chases. It was not a cliff-hanger of a chase, nor was it a roller coaster ride towards a nail-biting result. Such was the intensity of India’s chase that the only question being asked as the inevitable result approached was whether the Lankans, especially Slinga would be able to pick themselves up for the remaining match against Australia, which they need to win to qualify for the finals.
In some ways, this innings by Virat Kohli was quite similar to the Desert Storm match. When Sachin blew away Sharjah and handed Australia a 101 lesson on how to utterly disrespect a bowling attack, India ended up short in that match. They only managed to qualify on Net Run Rate. The circumstances of this match were similar. After a usual lack-lustre display by the Indian bowlers complete with their trademarked “Get back into Form, My Friend” tactic, which Kumar Sangakkara was very grateful for, and which Dilshan doesn’t really need, Sri Lanka posted 320 for India to chase in 50 overs. They had to do it in 40 to stay in the tri-series.
This is where the difference lies, between the current Indian side and the team of the 90s. Sachin scored 143 out of India’s total of 250, while chasing 276 in 46 overs. Yesterday (Tendulkar was still there!) every batsman was involved. The openers put on 50 in 6 overs, setting up the chase. Then Gambhir and Kohli built on that platform while maintaining the required rate with a combination of good shot making and opportunistic running between the wickets. And finally, the IPL side of Kohli and Raina took over as they went from 215 after the 29th over to the target in the 37th over. Those were 9 overs of systematic belligerence. The highlight of which was the 35th over. Kohli got to his hundred with a couple to deep mid-wicket, and then reached 122 by the end of the over – a flick six, square of the wicket on the leg side, three boundaries past the fine leg fielder and a lofted drive on the off side. And when you have to pull Slinga out of the attack, you know you are in deep trouble.
Kolhi and Raina remained unbeaten, adding 120 runs in 55 balls for the 4th wicket. Another point to be observed in this innings was that the Indians never lost two set batsmen very quickly. Even though the Gambhir-Tendulkar partnership lasted only 3 overs, Gambhir had already chugged along to 17.
And this match also in a way reflects the Lankans’ fortunes since the World cup, which also happens to be the post-Murali era. Their batting isn’t a cause for worry but that is only half the match won. They really have no ace bowlers apart from Slinga and if he doesn’t fire, their bowling can be easily domesticated.
As for India, this match does not signify their return to the levels of the Gary Kirsten era. But it could be a turning point. India will never be at ease with its bowling unit overseas, it seems. But Kohli has yet again proven his mettle in the chase. He said in the post-match press conference that they were treating it like two T20 matches, which is a remarkable strategy. All that is missing for him is the same sensibility while batting first and the same intelligence in test cricket. And this applies for them all.
For the time being, Sri Lanka have to gather their wits and put Malinga back together in one piece, as they head to the MCG for their survival in the tournament. India meanwhile, can finally afford some peace. And go shopping!