Tillekaratne Dilshan and Russell Arnold fashioned an unlikely victory for Sri Lanka in the fifth One-Day International against India in Ahmedabad on Sunday. It gave the Lankans their first triumph in the seven-match series.
With Sri Lanka reeling at 155-5, while chasing a target of 286, Dilshan and Arnold produced a brilliant fightback in a 131-run sixth-wicket unbeaten partnership to see the visitors home by five wickets.
Earlier in the day, contrasting centuries by Gautam Gambhir and captain Rahul Dravid helped India, after being put in to bat, pile 285 for 8.
The hosts were at one stage looking good to cross the 300-mark, but a five-over burst from Farveez Maharoof (4-20) checked their progress. The 15-20 runs that India lost towards the end may have proven critical to the result.
Having sealed the series with a victory in Pune, India had nothing to lose in the game and opted to rest Sachin Tendulkar, Irfan Pathan and Harbhajan Singh.
The flat track in Ahmedabad meant bad news for Sri Lanka. Any respite the visitors may have felt by Sachin Tendulkar's absence quickly evaporated as Gautam Gambhir began to sizzle.
He pierced the off-side field with ferocity twice against Dilhara Fernando in the second over, and India were off to yet another frenetic start. Gambhir then slashed hard, charged down to Chaminda Vaas and swung his bat for a six over mid-wicket off Zoysa.
That Sri Lanka were on the back foot was evident by the fact that Marvan Atapattu pulled out the slips for Vaas in the fifth over of the game itself. As if on cue, Gambhir got a thick edge past the first-slip position that ran down to the boundary.
6.2 overs and India had the 50 on the board. Virender Sehwag had contributed 19 runs and just one boundary.
In a blink of two balls Zoysa stemmed another likely annihilation. He had Sehwag chop down the ball on the stumps and trapped Mahendra Singh Dhoni leg before wicket on the very next ball (50-2). Even before he gestured at the crowd to keep quiet, it had settled into an uncomfortable hush.
The wickets had the desired effect, as India was able to muster only nine runs off the next four overs.
Gambhir, living on the edge, was lucky to escape two near-fatal situations. When he was on 35, Kumara Sangakkara put down a chance down the leg side off Zoysa. In the same over, Russell Arnold failed to complete a catch at square leg. The diving Arnold had Gambhir distracted, as the Indian ran hard into the bowler. Fortunately, there wasn't any serious damage to either player.
After that eventful over, Vaas, who was back to his nagging accuracy by now, tasted success. He ended Yuvraj Singh's uneasy stay at the crease when he had him caught by Mahela Jayawardene at mid-wicket to a half-hearted flick. (69-3).
Sri Lanka were made to bring in their Supersub Farveez Maharoof as early as the 14th over after Zoysa retired with a leg injury.
But with Vaas and Zoysa out of the attack, the visitors again looked helpless in the face of India's rejuvenated attitude. Fernando, who was taken off after a two-over opening spell, came back without much success. Gambhir and Rahul Dravid also milked the Sri Lankan spinners, who had played a huge role in winning the IndianOil Cup at home.
Muttiah Muralitharan is having a tough tour, as the Indian batsmen, known to be very good players of spin, have struck a high. Though the star off-spinner held back India from running away with the game on Sunday, he was unable to make a breakthrough in the middle-overs when the Indian batsmen were cruising along.
Gambhir, who was building in confidence under the guidance of Dravid, kept his strike rate above a run-a-ball. The boundaries were not coming easy with the field spread out, but Gambhir, who romped to his half-century from 46 balls, used up another 47 balls only for his subsequent 50.
The Delhi opener has choked in the nineties on a couple of occasions in his short stint as a Test opener, but this time the nerves carried only exuberance as Gambhir flicked the ball to square-leg to bring up his maiden hundred in the shorter form of the game.
Gambhir is making an impression on every given opportunity and with the 93-ball hundred staked a claim in the star-studded ODI batting line-up. The series has risen in intensity as the Indian batting blades have flashed brightly, and Gambhir's innings was yet another example of uninhibited aggression.
His belligerence though came to a tame end on 103 as he holed out to Atapattu at short mid-wicket. Gambhir tried to pull Maharoof on the front-foot but failed to clear the Sri Lankan captain. (197-4).
Maharoof, who had been kept away till the 37th over after being brought into the game for Zoysa, struck in his first over with Gambhir's wicket. The lanky pacer bowled intelligently to make short work of India's lower order. Allowed only five overs as Zoysa's substitute, Maharoof went on to pick a wicket each in his first four overs to strangle the Indian charge.
He had Venugopal Rao caught at fine leg by Upul Tharanga for six (208-5) and Suresh Raina walked too far across to sweep the ball as it struck him right in front of the stumps. (224-6).
Ajit Agarkar couldn't hold fort for long and was out trying to heave a good-length delivery on the on-side. The Mumbai player only managed to hit it straight to Arnold at mid-on. (230-7).
In a five-over burst, Maharoof kept a tight line on and outside the off-stump and got the length-just short of good length-right almost every time. The wickets also proved crucial, as India would then have lesser arsenal to attack in the slog overs.
Dravid, who watched the slide at the other end, soldiered on India's cause with purpose. He was overshadowed by Gambhir for most part of his innings, but the Indian captain stood solid for another perfectly-timed one-day knock.
He capped it with a six off Muralitharan in his last over. Dravid came down the track and hit it over long-on.
Atapattu's reluctance over fielding second in Ahmedabad was evident as the dew started to affect play in the last five overs. Muralitharan found the ball difficult to grip and Dravid survived a run-out chance when the fielders all-round failed to keep their hands on the ball.
The Sri Lankan captain though managed to hold on to one when Murali Karthik hit a full-toss right into his hands off Fernando. (262-8).
Rudra Pratap Singh came out with Dravid on 90. As Dravid ran close to his first hundred as a captain, the overs seemed to be running out. Singh was hitting through well and though Dravid was cramping up he ran hard also for his partner.
The Indian captain was being selfless, not hogging the strike but with him needing three runs to reach the landmark off the last two balls of the innings it became a desperate situation for the crowd. Fernando ran in and dug the ball short; Dravid quickly got on his toes and pulled the ball for four.
A deafening cheer ran across the stadium as Dravid raised his arms to celebrate his 11th ODI century.
India had lost their way after the 38th over, but regained ground as they knocked off 34 runs in the last three overs to finish at 285 for eight after 50 overs. Dravid remained unbeaten on 102 from 120 balls with eight boundaries and a six.
Though the Sri Lankan spinners struggled, pacemen Vaas, Zoysa and Maharoof were instrumental in getting the breakthroughs. Maharoof, with 4 for 20 in five overs, was the pick of the bowlers.
Sri Lanka innings:
The visitors again got off to a stuttering start as India's opening bowlers -- RP Singh and Ajit Agarkar --used the evening conditions to move the ball away from the batsmen. Though Agarkar was a little erratic to begin with, he seemed to have the rub of the green on the night.
R P Singh bowled to his field and a more consistent line but with little success. He beat the openers' bat regularly and even had Sangakkara nick one. However, Gambhir, at first slip, spilled the thick edge. Sri Lanka's wicketkeeper-batsman was then struggling with three from 17 balls while Sanath Jayasuriya continued with his sporadic flashes at the ball.
The former Sri Lanka skipper, who nursed a shoulder injury before coming into the tournament, is rushing into his shots rather than buying some time in the middle to regain his touch. He only had a strong pull off Agarkar and a flashy cut past point for four to show as he fell for eight.
The Mumbai bowler made the ball move away just a little from the batsman, and Jayasuriya edged it to Venugopal Rao at first slip. (15-1).
True to their style, Sri Lanka didn't consider slowing down as an option. Upul Tharanga picked up from where Jayasuriya left, cracked two boundaries, scored 14 from as many balls, and then gave his wicket away.
After a useful 46-run partnership with Sangakkara, Tharanga was out trying to hit Agarkar out of the park. He failed to judge the slower ball, which shot up in the air. Sehwag, leading the side in place of Dravid, got under the ball and caught it comfortably. (61-2).
Dravid was replaced by India's super sub JP Yadav in the tenth over of the innings.
Sehwag shuffled around the medium pacers during the second and third powerplay. R P Singh, who came back after a five-over opening spell, struck with the wicket of Sangakkara.
The Sri Lankan batsman had looked out of sorts and played an unusually painstaking knock of 39 from 69 balls. RP Singh pitched the ball outside the off-stump and Sangakkara fished for it. Rao, at first slip, juggled the ball, and for a heart-stopping moment it looked like R P Singh would again be denied a wicket, but he caught it on the fifth attempt. (73-3).
Sri Lanka brought up their 100 in the 20th over and despite the loss of wickets were able to maintain a healthy run-rate as Jayawardene and Atapattu got together. The Indian bowling also lost some of its edge once the pacers were off.
Jayawardene and Atapattu built a partnership of 70 runs for the fourth wicket to keep the team in the hunt. They rallied around for more than 10 overs and pushed hard between the wickets, escaping a couple of close calls brought about by Suresh Raina's brilliant ground fielding.
Murali Karthik, who looked least threatening till then with his gentle offerings down the leg-side, affected a vital break for India with the wicket of Atapattu for 39.
The Lanka captain tried to run down a flighted delivery down the leg-side, but a leading edge carried the ball straight to the left-arm spinner. (143-4).
Jayawardene followed close on Atapattu's heels as his zeal for quick singles proved fatal.
Tillekaratne Dilshan played the ball past short third man and Jayawardene tried to sneak a single. The fielder, J P Yadav, scored a direct hit and with the batsman short of his crease. (155-5).
Sri Lanka were in trouble. They had lost their first five batsmen and the run-rate had climbed to seven runs an over. The Indians were fielding well, given the slippery condition of the outfield, but their bowling proved the weak link.
Dilshan and Arnold staged another fight back as the Indian bowlers struggled under the conditions. J P Yadav and Karthik were proving ineffective; Sehwag brought himself for an over but was taken off for nine runs.
Before the Indians could plan the counter, Sri Lanka had turned tables. They scored at more than run a ball without an evident surge. The Indians allowed the game to drift and Sehwag didn't have enough runs to play with and attack the batsmen. He had to keep the boundaries well-marshalled but it were the singles and twos that hurt India more.
The game was in Sri Lanka's reach; 70 runs in the last ten overs.
The next two overs produced 20 runs. It was advantage Sri Lanka. The visitors went from 200 to 250 within the space of 37 balls, their fastest fifty of the match.
Dilshan and Arnold, having done all the hard work, opted for some quick runs. Arnold started the rush with a drive through long-on off Sreesanth but it was Dilshan who cracked the whip on the Indian bowlers.
He welcomed R P Singh back into the attack with a lofted shot over long-on that bounced just inches inside the boundary. Dilshan also completed his fifty in the over, off 46 balls, and then unfolded a flurry of boundaries.
India wilted in Sri Lanka's last wave of resurgence as the target shrunk rapidly.
In the end, Sri Lanka toyed with the bowling to romp home with five wickets and more than two overs to spare.
Dilshan remained unbeaten on 81 off 67 balls while Arnold was unlucky to miss out on a well-deserved half-century, as he finished on 49 not out.
Though they have conceded the series, the visitors fought back from a losing position with purpose. The spirit and acumen of the two Sri Lankan batsmen must be heartening for the team, which came to India with a big reputation.
The Indians were without three of their key players, but on the day Sri Lanka proved a team with better intent.