Upul Tharanga’s decision to bat first despite the 30-minute rain delay before the start of the fifth and final One-Day International at the R Premadasa Stadium came as a surprise.
It was not only because overcast conditions would have favoured their pacemen at the start, but with the possibility of more rain to come, it would have been advisable to chase.
Tharanga defied conventional wisdom and then came up with a morale-boosting 48 on Sunday (September 3). The skipper’s 34-ball blitz was the foundation on which Sri Lanka built their highest total in this series against India.
Angelo Mathews and Lahiru Thirimanne put on 122 for the fourth wicket to help Sri Lanka in their attempt to put an end to their four-match losing spree. Mathews contributed a measured 55, while Thirimanne completed his 18th ODI half-century en route to 67.
And yet, Sri Lanka only managed 238, being bowled out off the fourth delivery of the final over.
Sri Lanka were kept down to a manageable total largely because Bhuvneshwar Kumar picked up his maiden ODI fifer (5 for 42), and Jasprit Bumrah returned 2 for 45. Bumrah, with 15 wickets in this series, became record holder for the most wickets by a pacer in a five-match bilateral ODI series. Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, the spinners, only had one scalp each, but their economical spells tied Sri Lanka up each time they threatened to accelerate.
The seemingly small total will probably not be enough to give Sri Lanka the relief of pulling one back, but with the pitch showing signs of abundant turn, their spinners could make things interesting.
Akila Dananjaya would have paid close attention to how much spin Kuldeep and Chahal were able to get off the surface. The Sri Lankan offspinner, who picked up six wickets in the second ODI, benefitted from the slow surface in Pallekele, and here too will get some assistance.
That explains why Sri Lanka did not add Dushmantha Chameera, the paceman, to the unit comprising Lasith Malinga and Vishwa Fernando even after getting a good look at the conditions. Sri Lanka retained Milinda Siriwardana and Malinda Puspakumara, both left-arm orthodox bowlers, to partner Dananjaya.
The only change Sri Lanka made for this game was dropping Kusal Mendis for Tharanga. Tharanga had missed the last two ODIs, serving a ban for a slow over-rate offence.
Sri Lanka missed his services not only as skipper but also as a quality top-order batsman. How much they missed him was made clear minutes after Tharanga arrived at the crease with Niroshan Dickwella in tow at the start of the action.
India made four changes, bringing in Ajinkya Rahane (a forced change after Shikhar Dhawan flew back to India to be with his ailing mother), Kedar Jadhav, Chahal and Bhuvneshwar. KL Rahul, Axar Patel and Hardik Pandya were the others to miss out, apart from Dhawan.
One would have expected Bhuvneshwar, a master at swinging the ball both ways when the conditions are favourable, to run riot at the top. He did so to a degree, getting rid of Dickwella (2) and Dilshan Munaweera (4), both with knuckle balls, but he was not able to get the better of Tharanga.
After getting off the mark with a glorious cover-drive off Bhuvneshwar in the opening over, Tharanga’s stay promised aplenty. He took a particular liking to Thakur, smashing seven of his nine boundaries off the Mumbai bowler who made his debut in the last game. Three of those fours came off consecutive deliveries in the eighth over.
Even when Bumrah came into the attack in the tenth over, Tharanga was not perturbed, welcoming the paceman with a graceful pull to the fence in front of square. But then a corker of a delivery from Bumrah undid Tharanga’s poise the very next ball. Bowling from over the wicket, Bumrah’s awkward angle squared Tharanga up as the batsman looked to play through midwicket. All he managed was a faint nick to MS Dhoni. Tharanga had scored 48 of the 63 runs Sri Lanka had on the board.
In the last four games, Sri Lanka have put up scores of 216, 236 for 8, 219 for 9 and 207. So at 63 for 3, few expected Sri Lanka to put up a strong total. But once Mathews and Thirimmane got together, there was reason to believe that their bowlers would have a decent score to defend.
The duo dodged a tricky early phase with common sense and plenty of running. Their alliance was also helped by the fact that India’s fielding was found wanting, again. Barring Virat Kohli, who took a stunning back-pedalling catch to dismiss Munaweera, most of the other fielders made amateur mistakes, especially in the deep.
Kohli was not at all pleased with his teammates, and the fact that Mathews and Thirimanne were cruising only added the crease lines on his forehead.
Their partnership, the highest for Sri Lanka for any wicket in this series, was doing a brilliant job of keeping Sri Lanka in the hunt for their first 250-plus score in five games.
Even after Thirimanne became Bhuvneshwar’s third victim as the left-hand batsman dragged a cramping length delivery onto the stumps in the 39th over, Mathews did not look too bothered. After all, Siriwardana has shown good ability in the last three games.
Strangely enough, it was the already established Mathews who played an ill-advised paddle sweep to get out in the 42nd over. The sweep had failed Mathews for the most part of his innings but until then, he had gotten away with it. This time, however, Kuldeep shortened his length to incit a top-edge that Dhoni gobbled up comfortably.
Given Sri Lanka’s track record this series, the threat of a collapse was very real. Wanindu Hasaranga’s run-out only added to the drama. Attempting a suicidal run after an inside-edge dribbled not far from Dhoni, Hasaranga would have hoped that the wicketkeeper’s throw would not be accurate. Hasaranga took on Dhoni and lost. As aware as ever, Dhoni threw to Chahal and got rid of the batsman.
Dhoni was already having a good day at the office but it was about to get better for the former skipper. In the 45th over, Chahal drew Dananjaya out of the crease with plenty of flight and managed to creep the ball under the batsman’s swinging blade. Dhoni coolly gathered and clipped the bails with Dananjaya miles out of the crease.
Dhoni thus became the first ’keeper with 100 stumpings in one-dayers, leaving Kumar Sangakkara (99) behind.
From there on, Dhoni had little role to play but sit back and enjoy another one of Sri Lanka’s collapses.