They rolled them over.
Pulling a fast one on your school bully when everyone is watching is enormous fun, but it comes with a risk: The risk of getting beaten and humiliated when the angry bully corners you. Even the confines of your home that are usually safe and serene don’t provide sanctuary when you are on the hit-list of your big angry fire-breathing nemesis.
This happened in 1983 when West Indies came to India after the latter’s famous win at Lord’s in the World Cup final. Eager to show who was still the boss, the West Indies demolished India in all five one-dayers beating them by comfortable margins every time. The best the hosts could do was to manage a few draws in the Test series that was also comprehensively snatched by Clive Lloyd’s team 3-0. The point was well and truly made. The defeat in the World Cup final was just a minor blip for the West Indies who were a much superior team even in the opponent’s own den.
Sri Lanka’s victory over India in 2017 Champions Trophy wasn’t quite the same degree of upset as India’s World Cup final win in 1983 but still, it was surely against the serious odds and on the big stage of an ICC tournament. The scales were supposedly tilted so emphatically in India’s favour before the game that Virender Sehwag had urged Team India to treat this as a practice match.
When India landed in Sri Lanka, Virat Kohli never talked about the defeat at the Oval during Champions Trophy, but he must have carried the hurt deep inside. The defeat that Kohli did talk about, or rather, has never stopped talking about was the defeat in the Test match at Galle in 2015, Kohli’s first full series as India’s captain.
Kohli was coming back with more wisdom and clout as captain. He had weathered a difficult little period where questions were being raised over his role in Anil Kumble’s exit from the team and Ravi Shastri’s appointment as the new head coach. Despite arriving as overwhelming favourites, this team had a point to prove. They had to show that despite a change in the regime, the juggernaut was still rolling.
If the Sri Lankan team that India met in Champions Trophy were underdogs, the team they were going to meet now were showing signs of terminal illness. Defeat and political turmoil go hand-in-hand in Sri Lankan cricket and the defeat against Zimbabwe had the political figureheads seething in anger. There were calls for enquiries into fitness and commitment of this lot. Coach Graham Ford who enjoyed a lot of respect in cricketing circles in Sri Lanka was asked to leave, with the board still looking for a permanent replacement. Key players were carrying injuries or niggles. Sri Lankans always put up a fight at home, but even at the beginning of this tour, they were looking like lambs led to slaughter if India played anywhere near their potential.
The one-way road that led to the final 9-0 milestone for the series started at Galle on 26 July. Shikhar Dhawan played an innings that can be best described as Sehwag-esque and was ably supported by a Cheteshwar Pujara who has been in top Rahul Dravid-esque form over the past two seasons. Kohli encashed the bonus coupons from the first innings dominance to collect a century of his own in the second innings. India, in the field, continued to be clinical and boring. The seamers did the job with some early wickets and the spinners did everything asked of them. The only spark from Sri Lanka came from Dimuth Karunaratne, who compiled a patient 92 in his team’s second innings.
The second Test gave further proof that Sri Lanka’s talisman in Test matches was waning. Even superheroes retire. Rangana Herath is an injury-too-old now to carry the burden of Sri Lanka’s bowling attack against the gluttony of Indian batsmen. Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and just about everyone Indian with a bat in hand piled on the misery. The Test match could have been over in a blur for Sri Lanka after they responded to India’s 622 with a tame 183, almost begging a reluctant Kohli to enforce the follow-on. With hundreds from Jeevan Mendis and Karunaratne, Sri Lanka almost exhumed the spirit of Galle, 2015, but a come back from their position would have required a miracle too many.
In the third Test, India batted first again and stuttered for a while after a big opening partnership between Dhawan and KL Rahul, only to be rescued by the most breathtaking performance of the match and probably the tour in the form of a smoking hundred from Hardik Pandya. Kohli is certain that he needs an enforcer like Pandya in his plans of conquering the world and a series like this was a perfect breeding ground for the flamboyant all-rounder. The Sri Lankan batsmen were snuffed out quickly on a pitch that had more assistance for the bowlers. See you in the ODIs.
If the Test series was about Indian batsmen closing the games with huge first innings total, the ODI series was about Indian bowlers never allowing Sri Lanka a sniff after bowling first. Jasprit Bumrah and Axar Patel were the pick of the Indian bowlers. Miserly and potent, they consistently picked up wickets while keeping the runs in check. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav too had their moments under the sun. Overall, India were relentless in the field.
As the tour progressed and the formats got shorter, the hosts managed to come close to the tourists, almost touching distance of victory at times. But a lack of depth and failure to grab key moments of the game always allowed the tourists to race away with the win.
MS Dhoni’s keeping was one of the highlights of the series. The king of stumpings was officially crowned during this series when his lightning glove-work claimed its 100th victim. India looks a different unit with Dhoni’s Bheeshma Pitamah-like calming influence on this team. Kohli is very much the King of Indian cricket but Dhoni still has an important role to play in India’s road to 2019.
With the bat, Virat Kohli seems unstoppable against the white ball. His career numbers continue to grow more astonishing. An average of 50-plus in T20 internationals and 30 hundreds in less than 200 games in ODIs is scarcely believable. Kohli the Test batsman is formidable. But Kohli the limited over batsman is insurmountable, unstoppable and unshakeable.
India also came good on Sehwag’s prophecy of treating the Champions Trophy match as a practice game when it seemed they came out to play an entire practice series in which several regulars were rested and everyone sitting on the bench was given a go.
Sri Lanka’s batsmen showed promise but struggled for consistency and longevity. Upul Tharanga summed up the ODI series perfectly for the hosts when he pointed out his team’s inability to post a single 250-plus score.
Sri Lanka’s only consolation from the ODI series was the emergence of Akila Dananjaya to ensure the island is still the flag-bearer of mystery spin in world cricket. A performance like his 6-54 in the second ODI is going to mean a possible bidding war in the next IPL season. It’s going to be interesting to see how he copes up the challenge of being constantly scrutinised and worked out by top batsmen from all over the world. Sri Lanka need Dhananjaya to be the real deal and not a one-series wonder. Getting over a slump like the one in which Sri Lanka find themselves may take years. What the island needs are a few world class performers to pin their hopes on and be proud of, even if they can’t put a world class XI on the field.
Sri Lanka’s interim coach Nic Pothas while drawing comparison between the Indian cricket team and New Zealand’s All-Black rugby team made it succinctly clear what his team needs to do from here: “The most important thing for us is learning from our mistakes, but most importantly: Learning from them."