India appeared, in recent times, to have corrected an abysmal record in the first Test of overseas series, but Thursday’s crushing ten-wicket loss means for the third time in as many tours of Sri Lanka, they find themselves trailing 0-1 with two matches to play.
Defeats at Galle in 2001 and the SSC ground here in 2008 were immediately followed up by victories in Kandy and Galle respectively. For India to pull off a hat-trick and keep themselves in with a chance of winning this series, they will have to find some answers, and quickly, ahead of the second Test beginning at the SSC ground on Monday.
India will be thankful that, at least in Test cricket, they will no longer have to contend with 800-wicket man Muttiah Muralitharan. Even if Ajantha Mendis, their principal tormentor in 2008, is primed for a return, a more familiar and equally unconventional figure is what will occupy the mind-spaces of a batting line-up that can arguably lay claim to being the best in the business.
For all of Muralitharan’s eight wickets in his farewell Test, there can be no two opinions about who the most influential Sri Lankan bowler was in the Galle Test. There is so much about Lasith Malinga that makes for breathtaking viewing. A furious, aggressive run-up to the stumps, his curly locks bobbing and weaving, and his unique round-arm action that propels the ball as if from a slingshot, make him a fascinating viewing prospect, but a dangerous concoction from a batsman’s perspective.
Malinga’s ability to send down yorker after toe-crushing yorker at great pace with relentless accuracy and prodigious movement had India’s best groping for answers at the Galle International stadium. That he so quickly fell into rhythm after a prolonged absence from the Test arena made his effort even more commendable.
It is inevitable, given the enormous strain his unusual action puts on his body, that Malinga will attract injuries of a varied nature. A succession of unrelated injuries meant for two and a half years from December 2007, Malinga was lost to Test cricket. When he returned this week, he showed just how much Sri Lanka had missed, and how lucky batsmen had been, with sensational bursts in both innings that left India’s celebrated top order remarkably clueless.
Incredible as it might sound, only two Sri Lankan bowlers – the peerless Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas – have taken more than 100 Test wickets. That could explain why Sri Lanka travel so poorly, especially to countries with pace-friendly conditions, but if Malinga can remain injury-free, there is no reason why Sri Lanka will not be an all-season, all-condition force to reckon with.
Already, the slinger has 98 wickets, the third most by a Sri Lankan alongside Sanath Jayasuriya, striking at a wicket every eight overs. With greater exposure to Test cricket, and consequently longer spells, he will only get more lethal, a prospect Kumar Sangakkara will eye with ill-concealed enthusiasm, given that both Muralitharan and Vaas have walked into the history books.
“We’ve been trying to get Lasith play all forms of cricket for two years now,” Sangakkara acknowledged. “We believe in him immensely. He’s a fighter, works as hard as anyone I have seen. He prepares well to play matches. We must be careful not to bowl him into the ground. Test cricket is like that, it’s a hard place for bowlers. This is the prime form of the game and we need everyone hungry to play in this form.”
His Indian counterpart, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, conceded that Malinga was quite a handful but added that it was up to individuals to work out methods to counter him. “You have to educate yourself as to where his delivery point is, and what he is looking to do,” Dhoni said, all animated. “At times, you miss a delivery because of his unique action, and if that particular delivery is a beautiful one, you get out. You have to be really careful when he just comes on, because his first over is when he usually gets a wicket. You have to keep those five-six deliveries out, and then work out what needs to be done. It is about creating awareness about what the bowler is trying to do.”
Easier said than done, perhaps, but done it must be if India seek a way back.