Sidharth Monga, courtesy of ESPNcricinfo, 27 July 2017, where the title runs thus “Fleet-footed India outdo Sri Lanka in the Galle maze
India like to be ruthless when ahead, in that they don’t like to leave the door open in order to make a statement. Even the ever-present threat of rain in Galle is not likely to make them enforce a follow-on on a 10-man Sri Lanka, even if they bowl them out in the first hour on the third morning. Prospects of a three-day finish might not be tempting enough for this team, which has seen the pitch drying out quickly, and which knows from first-hand experience that chasing anything on a quick-drying Galle surface can be treacherous.
However, there might be another benefit of this pragmatic approach: put more miles in the legs of Sri Lanka’s spinners. In a three-Test series to be played over three weeks, India have got on top of the Sri Lanka spinners early, and can further push the advantage home. Rangana Herath and Dilruwan Perera have already bowled 70 overs between them, going at more than four an over for just one wicket. The third day could just be the opportunity to beat them further psychologically.
Some will argue that this is a process that began on India’s previous tour of Sri Lanka. Since his match-winning spell in Galle last time, Herath – otherwise the world’s premier Test spinner alongside R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja – has averaged 56.55 against India, conceding 3.55 an over. This is becoming eerily similar to how Muttiah Muralitharan averaged 65.66 in his last full series against India. He was taken for close to four an over in that series.
An example of India’s superiority in handling spin in this Test has been how they have stepped out once every 4.5 balls to Sri Lanka’s spinners, taking 102 runs off 101 such forays. Shikhar Dhawan has added in the sweep to play havoc with their lengths. This, too, is a continuation of how India came back from the Galle defeat last time. Against Herath alone in the last two Tests of the series, India left their crease on 94 occasions for 111 runs.
As a comparison, in this Test, Sri Lanka have stepped down against spin once in two overs. Ashwin and Jadeja enjoyed the freedom of settling down into their lengths. Once Ashwin did, getting the ball to do things in the air before turning it, he looked like he might take a wicket every over. Even when Sri Lanka’s batsmen left their crease, they couldn’t quite reach the pitch of the ball, scoring only seven runs off 13 balls, and also losing Upul Tharanga to a sharp run-out by Abhinav Mukund at silly point.
To be fair to Sri Lanka, they were staring at 600 on the scoreboard, and the Galle pitch had started to dry out and play a trick or two. However, as Cheteshwar Pujara, who scored 153 and played a part in deflating the Sri Lanka spinners, pointed out, it cannot take away from how both India’s batsmen and spinners have been better in this spin contest. “Ashwin and Jadeja both have been bowling really well even in the last season, and they’ve continued that,” he said. “I think our bowlers, they’ve bowled better lines and lengths, and I think tomorrow onwards, we’ll see a little more turn on this wicket. The pitch is drying up, so there will be more assistance tomorrow onwards.”
Presumably not a fan of famous last words, Pujara resisted invoking a psychological edge over the Sri Lanka spinners, but did say that Sri Lanka will now be on the back foot. “When you start off well, it always puts the opposition on the back foot, but when you are playing at the international level, you still expect them to fight back and we wouldn’t take them lightly,” he said. “We would just like to stick to what we want to do and that was the reason of our success in the home season.
“Playing against spin, I think as Indian batsmen, we have enough exposure playing in the domestic circuit. That is the reason all our batsmen have been batting well. Even the lower-middle order, someone like Jadeja, Ashwin, Wridhhiman Saha, Hardik [Pandya, who scored a fifty on debut, batting at No. 8] – all of them can bat well; not just against spinners, but since we are talking about spinners, they all bat well against spinners.”
These are ominous words for Sri Lanka, but there is also studied caution in Pujara’s mind. He knows anything can happen against spin. Even the Murali they dominated towards the end of his career roused himself one last time to take eight wickets against India to complete the set of 800, in his last Test. India will be aware of the threat Herath and co. can pose if the pitch starts turning viciously, or if they find themselves in a tricky last-innings chase. However, on the kind of surface laid out in Galle, India do seem to have the Sri Lanka spinners’ number.