India marches into final after comprehensive win

(Courtesy: International Cricket Council)

India’s relentless march in the ICC Champions Trophy 2013  continued as Sri Lanka was outplayed by eight wickets. This set up the India-England final at Birmingham on Sunday (June 23), the two strongest teams of the tournament making it to the business end.

On a grey yet eventful day, nothing could break India’s superb rhythm – not cold winds, not Sri Lanka’s best batting or bowling, not protestors running onto the ground more than once – as it embraced unusually bowler friendly conditions to restrict Sri Lanka to only 181 for 8 and then knocked off the runs with no fuss.

To be fair to Sri Lanka, this was a good toss to win, and when Mahendra Singh Dhoni chose to bowl after a minimally delayed 11 am start, the ball swung more than it had all tournament. Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar showcased their skills with great accuracy, and Kusal Perera’s nightmare of a tournament ended with 14 runs from four outings as he popped a catch to Suresh Raina off Kumar. A bad situation got worse as Tillakaratne Dilshan, on 12, was forced to hobble off the field with a calf injury.

From that point on, India’s bowlers were all over Sri Lanka. Yadav, bowling a touch within himself, and Kumar, holding a tight line outside the off, got the ball to move in the air and off the pitch just enough to keep the batsmen honest. In the first powerplay, 48 of the 60 balls bowled were not scored off, and one wicket fell as Sri Lanka gathered 26 runs.

Kumar Sangakkara and Lahiru Thirimanne were left with the dual task of blunting the bowling and rebuilding the innings. They seemed to have the stomach for the fight, and though they added only 19 runs in 10.5 overs, the pair ensured that India’s bowlers were forced to earn their wickets.

And while Yadav and Kumar set the trap, it was Ishant Sharma who reaped the reward, hitting an excellent length consistently, extracting a bit of extra bounce to have both Thirimanne (7 off 31 balls) and Sangakkara (17 off 44 balls) caught by Raina at slip.

With the conditions being so obviously stacked in favour of the quick bowlers, Dhoni realised he needed an extra non-spin option, and a quick look around the field confirmed that he was the man for the job. From the 23rd over to the 31st over Dinesh Karthik took the big gloves as Dhoni racked up figures of 4-0-17-0 occasionally touching 125 kph. In the process, Dhoni even won an lbw shout against Mahela Jayawardene when an inducker caught the batsman pretty adjacent. Unfortunately for the Indian captain there was an inside edge that showed up easily enough on Jayawardene’s review and the batsman remained.

Jayawardene, who had a good read of the conditions, fought hard, nudging, glancing, late cutting and gliding the ball into the gaps when it was safe to do so, and had made 38, when a Ravindra Jadeja special breached his defences and pegged back the stumps.

From there on, even a captain’s innings from Angelo Mathews, in which he lifted a comfortable six off long on against Ishant on the way to 51, could not lift Sri Lanka. The second powerplay proved worse than the first, with only 12 runs coming between the 35th and 40th overs.

With the scoreboard stuck, Mathews tried to hit his way out of trouble come the 45th over, but, even after Virat Kohli missed a skier at long-on, Mathews could not press home the advantage.

When Sri Lanka ended on 181 for 8 against a batting line-up at the top of its confidence, it would have known that even the most helpful conditions were not going to be enough to get it over the line.

Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma, who had put up stands of 127, 101 and 58, in the matches leading up to the semifinal, began well enough, respecting the incisive bowling of Nuwan Kulasekara while picking off ones and twos against Lastith Malinga. With the ball swinging and seaming appreciably, it was not surprising that a few edges flew about, and when one went to hand, Mathews put down Dhawan on 18.

Rohit and Dhawan then brought up their fourth consecutive half-century opening partnership, and remained unseparated till 77 when a familiar rush of blood caused Rohit (33) to run down the pitch in an attempt to hit Mathews over cover. The sight of the stumps being rattled did not slow Dhawan down at the other end.

A couple of pleasing drives through the off side, the ball kept well along the ground, took Dhawan to his half-century and beyond, and it was not until India needed just 40 more for victory, that he fell, overbalancing against Jeevan Mendis to be stumped for 68, the top score of the game.

Kohli, who has five centuries against Sri Lanka at an average in excess of 50, strummed his way to yet another impressive half-century even as Raina shoveled a Malinga short ball to the fine-leg fence to take India to victory with 15 overs and 8 wickets to spare.