India 231 for 7 (Rohit 54, Bhuvneshwar 53*, Dhawan 49, Dananjaya 6-54) beat Sri Lanka 236 for 8 (Siriwardana 58, Bumrah 4-43) by three wickets (DLS method)
His name is Akila Dananjaya. He is supposed to be an offspinner but his nimble fingers can do what they want to the ball. One minute in 2012, he was bowling in the nets, the next he was fast-tracked into the Sri Lanka team by no less a spotter of talent than Mahela Jayawardene, in a World T20 to boot. If that isn’t enough drama, on debut, he struck in his first over, and then got hit in the face by a cricket ball. If his career had ended then, he would still have felt it was a roller-coaster.
Then came August 24, 2017. And even if it ended with victory for India by three wickets, he would never forget this rain-hit night.
Twenty-three-years-old now, a day after getting married, Dananjaya took 6 for 54 and had one of the world’s mightiest batting line-ups looking at him like he was a ghost. Virat Kohli was bowled for 4, deceived in the manner he might once have been while playing backyard cricket while still a child. He cast a dumbstruck look at the pitch as he walked off but the demon wasn’t there. He was 22 yards away, smiling and whooping and dancing with a bunch of men who had put only 236 runs on the board, but felt they were on their way to defending it.
MS Dhoni watched all of the revelry, typically expressionless. He had more important work to do, like reviving India’s chase, yet again.
From 131 for 7, through sheer force of will and fiendish common sense, he marshalled India towards their target. He had advice for those who would listen, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, in the course of a record-breaking eighth-wicket partnership of 100, certainly did. Don’t get stuck on the back foot, said the master to his protégé. Stick with him, pleaded all of India as they turned to a familiar hero.
Most of the Dhoni innings that stick in the mind feature brutish strokes and calculated carnage. But with a small target defended by a set of bowlers that were on an almighty roll, a different type of innings was required. One that would fetch 45 runs off 68 deliveries at a strike-rate of 66.17 with only one boundary. He had denied Muttiah Muralitharan in 2011. He did the same to Dananjaya on Thursday.
For one brief moment though, Sri Lanka thought they had glory. In the 35th over, with India 59 runs away, Vishwa Fernando produced a false shot from Dhoni and the ball trickled between his legs to hit the stumps. But the zing bails – heavier than the normal ones – wouldn’t fall. And neither would Dhoni. He and Bhuvneshwar brought the target down below 50, with a slog sweep for six. To 30, with back-to-back fours. Under 10, as both the sky and Sri Lanka’s hopes faded to black.
It was so that Pallekele, which had gasped and swooned and howled and cried, had to go back home knowing their country had lost playing its 800th ODI. But there might well be a smile on their faces once the wound stops feeling so fresh. At long last, their prayers had been answered. They had found someone who could actually land the ball where an Indian batsman didn’t want it.
There had been 329 runs and 44.2 overs between a Sri Lankan bowler taking a wicket on this tour. In the space of 15 balls, Dananjaya had four. By his fifth over, he had a five-for. Where was he all this time? Why hasn’t he been playing every match for his country? Why would anyone hide a bowler who, on one of his days, rouses thousands of people up and make them forget woes which had seemed all-consuming only last weekend?
But to do that, Dananjaya had to become a villain to a few people. Like Rohit Sharma, who had, until the 16th over, batted with such ease that he was playing any shot that popped into his mind, like a scoop against the express pace of Dushmantha Chameera. In the blink of an eye, he had scored one-sixth of the 37 runs he had made over his last 10 ODIs on the island. Then he had to face an offspinner. He saw a good length ball pitching on middle and leg and thought it ripe to sweep. After all, it would be turning further down leg. Except, it didn’t. It couldn’t. It was a legbreak. It spun the other way and pinned the man who dared to make 264 against Sri Lanka right in front. India were 109 for 1 in the 16th over.
Up the order came Kedar Jadhav. He was previously earmarked to be a finisher, but India wanted to experiment in this series. Only Frankenstein would not find the monster he was looking for this night. Dananjaya got back to his mark. He changed his grip; instead of the front two fingers gripping the ball, all of them wrapped around it. And after he trotted up to the crease, he released it from the back of his hand. Jadhav did not see it. But he sure as heck heard it crashing into middle stump.
Proper legspiners would not have the control Dananjaya does. Nor would they have his ripping googly. He got four of his wickets with it – three of them bowled, all of them in the same over. Hardik Pandya handed him his third five-wicket haul in all representative cricket, blindly charging out of his crease to be stumped off an ugly shot.
But such a special spell still ended up on the wrong side of a scorecard because Sri Lanka’s batsmen had let him down. Five of the top six faced at least 20 deliveries, and even Upul Tharanga, the man who missed out, got two scintillating boundaries. The pitch held no threat, the bowling wasn’t anything more than efficient, a more experienced team might have got through the tough stages to post a monumental total.
Sri Lanka were certainly heading that way after being put in. They were coasting at 70 for 1 in the 14th over, but lurched to 121 for 5 in the 29th, and if it wasn’t for Milinda Siriwardana finally unveiling the composure and shot selection expected of an international batsman, who knows what the score might have been? The allrounder made a timely half-century – his third in the format – and lifted Sri Lanka to a total that came within three wickets of being enough.
It wasn’t because of two India players who had the gumption to stay at the crease for longer than any of member of their opposition. And one of them was a No. 9, scoring his maiden fifty in ODIs.
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.