Thank God we lost to Sri Lanka, not Pakistan! That was the only consoling aspect of The Oval defeat on Thursday. In every other way the Indian team must accept that it was outsmarted.
Who’d have thought that a virtual non-entity, Mashtayage Danushka Gunathilaka -- inducted into the 15 just before the India match because of a knee injury to Chamara Kapugedara (who’d played against South Africa) and into the playing XI because of the two-match suspension for slow over-rate of stand-in skipper and opening batsman Upul Tharanga -- would be one of the heroes of Sri Lanka’s magnificent victory?
The most revealing aspect of his stunning game-changing 159-run second wicket partnership with 22-year-old Balapuwaduge Kusal Gimhan Mendis was that the pair was prepared for everything that the Indians threw at them.
The pair played to a plan which was made possible because they were completely aware of the strengths and weaknesses of every Indian bowler. And this is what went horribly wrong for India.
They were ambushed by opponents whose strengths and weaknesses were largely unknown while their own was an open book. Of course Mendis had come through under-19 ranks had good scores against Bangladesh and Scotland. But India were largely unaware of not just his batting ability but the duo’s temperament in a stiff run chase.
On the other hand the 26-year-old replacement batsman Gunathilaka, like his young partner seemed to know what to expect of the Indian bowlers and this shone through every moment of their wonderful partnership.
They eased into the task by wisely not taking any chances against the new ball. They saw through the initial burst of Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav and were just as circumspect against Jasprit Bumrah. All along they gathered runs at an unhurried pace. At the end of the 15th over Lanka were a mere 70 for 1. It was after the advent of Ravindra Jadeja to the bowling crease and his bowling in tandem with Hardik Pandya that the Sri Lankan duo really showed how well prepared they were for taking the fight to the Indian camp.
They had identified Pandya and Jadeja as the weak links in the attack and milked them in superb fashion. They seemed to know Jadeja’s approach intimately and this allowed them to reverse sweep and chip towards mid-wicket with alarming regularity.
It is possible that all the exposure the Indian players have been getting by way of live telecast during IPL and other matches had made the Sri Lankan youngsters very aware of their reaction to different situations. In fact they seemed to be one step ahead almost always, whether in sneaking singles or laying in wait for the slower ones, arm ball, bouncer and angled deliveries.
Skipper Virat Kohli had to finally bring in non-regular bowlers like himself and Kedar Jadhav to introduce an element of surprise. It also lowered the Lankans’ guard and they lost both batsmen to magnificent run outs.
But Gunathilaka (76 in 72 balls) and Mendis (89 in 93 balls) and their 159-run partnership had set up a superb platform in the chase of 322. Worse, even after their dismissals India’s woes did not end.
The talented Kushal Perera, experienced skipper Angelo Mathews and another relatively unknown cricketer Asela Gunarathne took over to spoil India’s party.
Gunarathne who played a cameo, was on top of the Indian attack much like Gunathilaka and Mendis only because he was thoroughly familiar with their abilities.
Signed up by Mumbai Indians for the IPL after his century against South Africa in an ODI and a couple of T20 50s against Australia, Gunarathne did not get to play in the playing eleven. But he probably was so well aware of MI team mate Bumrah’s bag of tricks that he was hardly surprised by the bowler.
He misread one slower yorker. But after that everytime Bumrah attempted it he would make room and guide the ball to third man for twos. In fact the approach of the entire Sri Lankan batting unit was so clinical it could be only put down to the fact that they knew everything that needed to be known of the Indian bowlers repertoire, mental make-up and approach to different situations.
In short it was the unknown quantity in the Sri Lankan team that smothered the best of the known foes in the Indian bowling. Guess exposure owing to IPL cuts both ways!