Colombo: The victory in the second ODI at Dambulla was engineered by Zaheer Khan, who turned in one of the best displays of calibrated seam bowling in recent times, and Praveen Kumar, who after a sparkling spell with the new ball returned to terminate vital late-order resistance.
But the most emboldening aspect of the three-wicket win, in the context of what has gone before it and what is likely to follow, was the pluck and skill shown by Virat Kohli, M.S. Dhoni, and S. Badrinath in handling the conditions and the situation.
Now, pursuits of targets as paltry as 143 are expected to be completed with minimum fuss by most half-decent batting sides. And scores of 37, 39, and 27 not out don’t make for celebratory writing. But this tour of Sri Lanka has been so severe and unique a test of courage, desire, and ability, that the yardsticks must be reassessed. This isn’t to say that the worst has passed; merely, these three men — in varying degrees — showed something that hasn’t always been on evidence this tour.
Ajantha Mendis, whose understanding of a rare craft is astounding for one so inexperienced, and Muttiah Muralitharan, whose mystery and quality have neither diminished nor grown stale with age, have tormented India over the last month. Seldom has a pair of spinners appeared so overmastering.
Only Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, and to a lesser extent, V.V.S. Laxman, and Rahul Dravid, played the pair with ease. With Gambhir missing the second ODI with a stiff neck, and the other three back home for different reasons, the test turned sterner for a side that looked distinctly stringy on paper. Add to this, the conditions in Dambulla, which armed the seam-and-swing bowlers as well, and the magnitude of India’s challenge becomes apparent.
Kohli, in many respects, showed his side the way against Mendis. Although his technique against the moving ball doesn’t inspire confidence — Kohli’s strength of mind isn’t in doubt. Neither the infirm nor the unambitious bat after losing their father that morning or lead an under-19 team to a World Cup triumph. Kohli betrayed no fear in tackling Mendis. He took his chances, but just as importantly, he reacted to what he saw — he trusted his methods. Kohli has been more privileged than Badrinath in receiving breaks, but at this level one makes his luck, and the 19-year-old will swim or sink on his merit.
Badrinath’s call-up to the national side is a story of unflinching will eventually shifting an immovable object —five immovable objects, in this case. Few cricketers have been made to jump through as many hoops; fewer still have done it as uncomplainingly and successfully. Lesser men would have turned bitter. But Badrinath persevered.
Indeed, over the last three years, no Indian batsman has made as strong and undeniable a case for selection in both forms of the game: so prolific has been the right-hander in domestic cricket and ‘A’ tour games, that only Ricky Ponting and Sachin Tendulkar, among batsmen still active and with at least 50 innings, have a higher First Class average than Badrinath’s 56.49; his List A record is impressive as well — an average of over 40 in 71 games.
Yet the 27-year-old wasn’t part of the one-day squad announced for the five-match series, and it was only Sachin Tendulkar’s withdrawal that opened up a spot for him. Having spoken out at long last, saying he must at least be allowed the chance to fail, Badrinath proved he could backup the talk. In just his first innings, starting cold against the twin threats, he looked like he belonged.
His footwork against Mendis and Muralitharan was excellent. He also appeared to pick most deliveries. The most striking aspect of the right-hander, apart from the stillness of his head, was his hand-speed, similar kinaesthetically to Steve Waugh’s.
On Wednesday, Badrinath showed he could handle the constricting pressure of international cricket; just as crucially, his skipper Dhoni witnessed it from close range. For India, which faces three difficult contests on the low and slow surfaces of the Premadasa, the fact that they have three batsmen, and hopefully a returning Gambhir, that have dealt confidently with the two unorthodox spinners is cause for hope.