Malinga’s wide full-length ball would have hoodwinked most batsmen who would have been setting themselves up for the swing to the leg side. Not the fleet-footed Dhoni, though, who calmly stretched across and carved high over the covers even as he teetered on one foot. The ball didn’t have the strength to beat Sachithra Senanayake on the boundary, but Dhoni and last-man Umesh Yadav bounded through for three runs to tie a nerve-wracking classic at the Adelaide Oval.
The beauty of the ODI format shone throughout the duration of the chase, with the best minds in the game feeling the pressure of a close finish. India were coasting on the back of another polished effort from Gautam Gambhir, whose faultless 91 showed he has moved on well from his Test-match woes. Dhoni had added 60 runs with Gambhir off 12.5 overs, leaving India needing 59 off 58. At that stage, Dhoni made the first decisive error, when he sold Gambhir dear after calling him for a single. Gambhir was caught short by a direct hit from Nuwan Kulasekara, and his fall gave Sri Lanka an opening; Dhoni would later say it cost India victory.
The wicket was followed by a 28-ball phase that yielded only 13 runs for the loss of Ravindra Jadeja’s wicket. Sri Lanka’s seamers bowled out of their skins, backed by enterprising field placements from Mahela Jayawardene that cut off the singles. With two overs of Malinga left, Dhoni went after Thisara Perera in the 46th, dumping him for a huge six down the ground, before R Ashwin skimmed another four over the covers. Malinga returned after a quiet over from Kulasekara, with India needing 28 off 18. Mistakes began to sprout from every corner now.
Malinga got Ashwin to sky a slower ball, and Kumar Sangakkara called for, and clanged the chance as he ran towards point. Ashwin continued blundering against the slower ball, heaving and missing one, before chipping straight to cover. With 24 needed off 12, Jayawardene turned to Angelo Mathews who trotted in from round the stumps to cut Dhoni’s swinging angle. Mathews lost the plot against Irfan Pathan, though, delivering a high no-ball that Irfan deposited over square leg for six. Irfan was run out next ball, sacrificing his wicket after failing to get a slower ball away. India needed a boundary, and Mathews obliged with another full toss that Dhoni swiped through midwicket to reach 50. Nine was needed off the last over, from Malinga.
In the previous game, Dhoni chose to take the game to the very end. This time, he was forced to do so by Malinga’s unhittable lengths. While he bowled impeccably, Malinga’s fielding was ordinary, and he missed a couple of returns that would have yielded run outs in the last over. A couple off the first ball was followed by three singles before Vinay sacrificed his wicket to give Dhoni strike for the final ball. One could argue that Malinga should have gone full and straight, but the counter-argument would be that even a fractional error in length would have allowed Dhoni a free swing over the short square boundary. As it transpired, Malinga went wide, Dhoni went high and there was poetic justice in the denouement.
Sri Lanka were left ruing a collapse in their batting Powerplay, that left them at least 20 runs short. They stumbled from a heady 168 for 3 in 35 overs, losing 18 for 3 in the Powerplay, including the two set batsmen – Dinesh Chandimal and Jayawardene – who had added 94 runs without a fuss. The complexion of the game changed so drastically in that block, that Ashwin bowled with two slips in the 40th over.
Until then, Chandimal ran the show with admirable poise, imposing himself with a series of pulls and whips through the leg side, imparted with a flourish that was once the trademark of Marvan Atapattu. In his company, Jayawardene shrugged away the poor form that had dogged him since the South Africa tour, as Sri Lanka recovered from their sluggish start.
India made three crucial early strikes, which meant they were only one wicket away from the lower order even during the Chandimal-Jayawardene association. Vinay Kumar preyed on Upul Tharanga’s unending troubles outside the off stump, before Irfan celebrated his return to the venue where he made his international debut in 2003 with pleasing swing, and the wicket of Tillakaratne Dilshan. Ashwin then worked over Sangakkara with spin and variety to peg Sri Lanka back. Chandimal and Jayawardene fought hard to revive the innings, but India were the happier side after 50 overs.
Gambhir took charge of the chase with assurance, and it will be interesting if India will continue their rotation policy and bench him for the next game. Sachin Tendulkar’s rustiness, too, suggested the break from Sunday’s game didn’t do him much good. Tendulkar, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma all perished after scoring 15 runs apiece, as Sri Lanka made timely dents. Suresh Raina’s failure meant India were wobbling at 122 for 4 in the 28th over. But they had just the right man coming in at that stage.
It wasn’t just the players that erred on the tense night. Umpire Nigel Llong’s miscounting meant Malinga only bowled five balls in the 30th over. India will believe they would have got the winning run off the ball that was missed. Sri Lanka will believe they could have got the tenth Indian wicket off it. How perfect then, that we will never know how it could have ended.