“When the going gets tough, the tough get going” is a rather overused phrase. It refers to the grit and tenacity a “tough” person brings to a strife. On Sunday, Sri Lanka found their own version of the “tough" guy in Suranga Lakmal. His sizzling ten-over spell — bowled without a break — saw him decimate the Indian batting line-up and reduce them to 29/7 in 20 overs.
Only a week ago, Lakmal had fallen so sick at the smog-filled Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi while fielding that he vomited and walked off. He probably hadn't fully recovered yet, inspite of the clean Dharamsala environment, for he finished his ten-over spell in the first One Day International (ODI), stood at fine-leg and started vomiting again. He was taken off the field and underwent medication in the dressing room after consulting with doctors.
Lakmal's unbroken ten-over spell was an exhibition of swing and seam bowling so mesmerising that it would have beaten the picturesque Dharamsala at a beauty pageant.
Watching the first over of his spell, one knew that Lakmal was in his zone. He was unplayable, landed the ball exactly where he wanted and made it talk a language none of the Indian batsmen totally understood.
Rohit Sharma, in particular, had issues against Lakmal's accuracy. He fished outside his off-stump way too much, gave up at one point of time and resorted to leaving and then fiddled again only to edge behind to the wicket-keeper. His 13-ball stay at the crease was fraught with edges and moments of oohs and aahs.
If Sharma, the 'Hitman' who has the highest individual score in ODIs — incidentally against the Sri Lankans — appeared a novice against Lakmal's niggardly lines and impeccable seam movement, one can imagine the plight of Dinesh Karthik, battling to stick on to the No 4 spot in the Indian line-up.
He faced 18 balls, 15 of them from Lakmal, scored no runs, was beaten five times while trying to defend and appeared a sitting duck, waiting to be relieved of his struggle at the crease. It ended on his 18th ball.
Lakmal, who had plotted Karthik's downfall in his mind, landed three outswingers before bringing one back into Karthik to trap him in front. Karthik's first feeling was probably that of relief for he walked off without pondering a review, happy to end his misery at the crease. But then he asked for a review, only for the umpire to say that the time was up. It wouldn't have mattered in the least.
Lakmal had his tail up by then and India very well knew what that meant. In Kolkata, during the first Test of the series last month, Lakmal had breezed through India’s top-order on a rain-hit first day, reducing them to 17/3 in the 71 balls that were possible in the day.
His figures at the end of that day read 6-6-0-3. It is an exhilarating sight to watch a fast bowler in his elements, tending to each delivery with extra effort and playing with the minds of the batsmen. Lakmal has been in that zone so often in the past few months that his status as a fast bowler has elevated from ordinary to extraordinary.
India aren't the only ones to get a taste of Lakmal. South Africa found some of it too when Sri Lanka toured there last December. On the first day of the first Test then, at Port Elizabeth, he nearly ruined Faf du Plessis’ choice to bat first with a spectacular spell that accounted for four top-order wickets and reduced the hosts to 267/6 by stumps. That Sri Lanka miserably lost does not take anything away from their only silver lining in the series.
Being in the zone is now an ordinary occurrence for this Matara-born workhorse. That Lakmal has elevated his game at a time when Sri Lanka are frantically searching for heroes shows the kind of temperament he possesses.
Having given his best in Kolkata but still watching his side scramble haplessly, Lakmal decided to do the job single-handedly this time round.
He proceeded to work over Manish Pandey and Shreyas Iyer, the youngsters in the Indian middle-order. Pandey edged more than he probably ever edged while learning the game while Iyer decided to place his foot at one point and not move it until he got out. Lakmal ended Pandey's miserable stay with another peach of a delivery angled into him before straightening to catch the edge.
Nuwan Pradeep's dismissal of Iyer in the following over meant India were 16/5, the lowest runs for which the fifth wicket had fallen for India in ODIs. In Pradeep, Lakmal found a solid partner, ready to wage a battle alongside him. When Hardik Pandya counter-attacked, Pradeep sent him on his way but Lanka still had Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Dhoni to deal with.
The duo share a special rapport. Since 2016, they have batted together 3 times in ODIs, have a century partnership and average 86.50. But Lakmal would have none of that. The only thing he was worried about today was if he would get enough time to bowl India out for their lowest ODI score (54 against Sri Lanka in 2000).
Akin to Pandey’s dismissal, Bhuvneshwar was caught in no-man's land as the ball came into him before holding its line to graze his bat. It plummeted India to 29/7. Lakmal was just in that kind of a form. “We thought we could bowl them out for 40 runs or so”, Lakmal said after the game.
Fast bowlers have spells when they bowl like a dream and still have no rewards to show. Some others are lucky enough to get a few wickets when they are running in with zip in their steps. Then there is Lakmal. He was so good that his dream spell ended up being his career-best performance in ODIs.
“It's the first time I have bowled ten overs in one go. What happened was I was going to stop on two occasion. Then we got a breakthrough. The captain asked do you want to stop, but I thought the conditions were perfect and I told him I will keep going. I enjoyed the effort," Lakmal told Cricbuzz.
His spell ended with figures of 10-4-13-4. That Sri Lanka failed to make a breakthrough for 41 runs after the end of Lakmal's dream spell shows the kind of impact he had made. It isn't often that fast bowlers get to bowl ten overs at a stretch in ODIs. But Lakmal just had to do it. He was so very comfortable running in and wreaking havoc on Sunday that he wanted to do that for eternity. He might as well, if only the ODI rulebooks allowed.