On the brightest, cleanest day of the Delhi Test, Sri Lanka completed what had happened only five times previously: bat 100 overs or more in the fourth innings to deny India a win at home.
Sri Lanka recorded the highest fourth-innings total against India in India and they did so in one of the most bizarre Tests seen – well, seen might be a stretch given the smog. Their players kept falling sick because of pollution, and the genuineness of the sickness was questioned in some way or the other every day by officials and former India players.
Every time you heard an India player or support staff talking about it, you would have thought this was war and the players had no choice but to continue fulfilling their duty no matter the sacrifice. And take pride in it. With Mahendra Kapoor playing in the background.
If it was war, Sri Lanka forced the aggressor to call a ceasefire with India offering the draw in the end. If it was a test of dedication to one’s duty and sacrifice, there was a clear winner in the end.
Unable to adjust to the pollution in Delhi, Dhananjaya de Silva vomited inside the dressing room on day two. He then bowled five overs in the second innings, but more importantly went on to bat 257 minutes to save the Test despite a glute injury that troubled him so badly he was unable to bend by the time he went off the field for treatment. Runners are not allowed nowadays, remember.
It was an innings of calm, of assured attack, and of restraint. This was not quite an epic blockathon, the kind that tickles the fancies of Test tragics. This was an effort from a man who knew he had to keep scoring runs to keep the pressure off. The pitch was his ally. There was hardly any assistance for the spinners. Ravindra Jadeja made one misbehave here and there but, largely, Dhananjaya could trust the ball to turn the way it was intended to and back himself to play accordingly.
That was only half the job done, though. India had all the momentum when he came in to bat in gloomy light on the fourth evening. R Ashwin and Jadeja are still the two highest-rated spinners in the world. There were spells of cat-and-mouse cricket. When Ashwin left the cover open, Dhananjaya managed the balance that is hard to maintain. His first instinct was to look for runs off every ball but defended assuredly if it was not quite there. He would stay back and wait for a ball short enough. If it was fuller, he would block it out. And if it was fractionally short, he would place it wide of mid-off, even if for just a single.
Slowly those fractionally short balls became shorter and shorter, and Ashwin was forced to ask for a cover and a deep point. Now Dhananjaya began sweeping to take advantage of the relaxed on-side field. India under Virat Kohli have shown against South Africa and England that they can find a way past a blockathon, but when the runs keep flowing, they start to spread fields. Niroshan Dickwella might have been a tad bit cheeky in saying that Sri Lanka were going to go for the win if de Silva had not injured himself, but Dinesh Chandimal explained the approach by saying they stood no chance if they did nothing but defend.
Spread fields mean running for your runs, and that is where Dhananjaya was severely hampered. In the middle session, he would double up at the end of each over, stretching himself, grimacing with pain, receiving treatment, but somehow getting up again to face another over. After a while, the umpires waved off help. They were fair in doing so having given him enough time. Now it was up to de Silva to either play through the pain or go off. He continued but not for long. It was decided the physio needed to get him off the field and treat him on the table. And this is not tennis, where you get that break.
If India had to go through Sri Lanka, they had to go through de Silva. He was ready to come back had a wicket fallen. But then two youngsters – Roshen Silva might be 29 but he was playing his first Test – saw them to safety and de Silva ended up with the highest fourth-innings score by a visiting batsman in India.
Therein was a lesson for the Sri Lanka management. Not long ago, Kusal Mendis and Dhananjaya burst onto the scene almost by accident – they didn’t come up through a system – and won them Tests against Australia in tough batting conditions. Despair after the retirements of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara had given way to promise. Imagine the two developing under the watch of Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal.
Then the team went to South Africa. It was okay till Port Elizabeth, but come the two tougher surfaces
De Silva, until then a No. 6 batsman, was asked to move up to No. 4. Chandimal, Mathews and even Upul Tharanga – a rather inexplicable comeback based on ODI runs – batted below the inexperienced Mendis and Dhananjaya. Fifty-six runs in those two Tests later, he was dropped. Just as suddenly as it disappeared, despair was back with India beating Sri Lanka for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Sri Lanka only need to look at their neighbours, where a strong leader in MS Dhoni identified the youngsters he wanted to back and gave them a long rope as opposed to exposing them to the line of fire. One of the beneficiaries of this trust, Kohli – he could have easily been dropped in Australia in 2011-12 to protect a senior and at the same time make a change for the sake of change – carries that legacy forward.
There are few things more heartbreaking in sport than false dawns and watching young talent wither away. Sri Lanka have let that happen once. Dawns rarely knock twice; Sri Lanka can’t afford to put on their sleep mask and look the other way now.