A Run-feast in Rajkot

It was December 2009 and yet again a clash between India and Sri Lanka- 2 subcontinent sides who had some memorable encounters during the past decade. Fans have seen a lot of contests between India and Sri Lanka over the years. A total of 159 ODI games have been played between the 2 sides, which is the highest number of head to head ODIs between any 2 teams till date. Some of the memorable ones include India’s 2011 WC victory, Sri Lanka’s Asia cup win that unearthed a mystery spinner named Ajantha Mendis, the run chase at Hobart in a tri-series that showed the transformation of Virat Kohli, and Jayasuriya pulverizing India at Sharjah by scoring 189. Pretty sure there are a lot more games than the ones mentioned.

Exactly 10 years ago on this day, the 2 sides met again at Rajkot in a high scoring cliffhanger. It was a sunny day with a pitch that had little to offer for the bowlers. A total of 825 runs with 80 boundaries and 24 sixes were scored in 100 overs. As a bowler, those are the days you want to forget. Batting first, openers Sehwag and Sachin capitalized the absence of Lasith Malinga and Muttiah Muralidharan, by starting aggressively. When Sachin was dismissed for a well-made 69, the score was already 153 from 19 overs. It was a good platform for MS Dhoni, who was in the form of his life, to come ahead and accelerate. The Indian captain did exactly the same. While Dhoni was dispatching the ball into the stands, Sehwag looked unstoppable and had scored his then career best knock of 146. When Sehwag was finally dismissed, India had already crossed 300 with still 15 overs remaining. The platform was well set for India to reach 400 but the Sri Lankan bowlers kept getting the middle order wickets in a flurry.

All eyes were on the young lad named Virat Kohli, who had just made his debut a year ago against the same opponent. He was yet to score an ODI century and his position in the team wasn’t fixed. India’s lead spinner Harbhajan Singh was promoted ahead of him considering Harbhajan’s exploits with the bat as a finisher. Kohli, who was batting at number 7, went on to find the gaps and uplifted the score to 380 after getting dismissed for 27 with a strike-rate of 142. He was bowled by an inside edge, trying to play aggressively. With Jadeja hitting a couple of sixes, India finished the innings by scoring 414-7.

With the advent of T20, no total was safe. Australia’s 434 was chased by South Africa just 3 years before this match. After the 1st innings, the pitch was still conducive for batting. However, with a strong bowling line up and home crowd support, India was still the favorite to win. Not every day, a team scores 400 and loses an ODI game.

Sri Lanka started their innings positively, thanks to a dropped catch from Virat Kohli. The openers Dilshan and Tharanga went on to score 188 runs in just 23 overs. That was when the 1st Sri Lankan wicket fell with part timer Suresh Raina scalping Tharanga. Sangakkara’s entry into the crease made things worse for India as the Sri Lankan skipper started to hit sixes towards the Shamiana (the term used for an Indian ceremonial tent) with which the stands were covered.

The game was on and this wasn’t going to be an easy defense for India. Rajkot was witnessing the Johannesburg like game but this time it was the opponent who was cruising in a high scoring contest. Dilshan was playing the role of Gibbs and Sangakkara was playing just like Graeme Smith. Sangakkara was dismissed after brutally scoring 90 runs from just 43 balls. The score was 316-2 with still 14 overs remaining in the play. The scoring rate was similar to India’s innings. The skipper had done a great job to accelerate the score and the job was left for the middle order to finish things off. With Dilshan back to the pavilion after scoring 160, India was gaining momentum and started to pick up wickets at regular intervals. Unnecessary runouts were certainly not helping Sri Lanka in their chase but a cautious approach from all-rounder Angelo Mathews made sure Sri Lanka was still in the game.

11 runs were required of the last over, which was going to be bowled by Ashish Nehra. Not the first time, Nehra was bowling a last over in a high scoring thriller (Memories of Karachi 2004). The equation went to 6 runs from 3 balls, when Mathews decided to pull the 4th delivery towards mid-wicket. Sachin, who was fielding in that position, took a catch which was supposed to go for a boundary. With Nehra keeping things tight in the last 2 balls, India clinched the nail-biter by 3 runs. Had Sri Lanka scored the deficit, it could have been the 2nd highest run chase in ODI history.

The game received a mixed response. Some people claimed it was worth the money for fans who witnessed the match in stadium. While some raised a concern regarding the balance between bat and ball. Should the bowlers be treated like bowling machines for batsmen to hit everything out of the park? Do people not appreciate good bowling? That was the last time an ODI was played at the Madhavrao Scindia cricket ground in Rajkot. The venue too coped some comments regarding the pitch and boundary length.

On a given day, there are matches in which targets of 300+ are chased with ease and on another day, chasing 200 will be a big deal. Despite all the criticisms related to the pitches, it’s the unpredictability that makes the game interesting. This match saw India’s senior bowlers Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra both conceding 80+ runs in their quota of 10 overs. However, they ended up as heroes after they started to bowl some tight lengths towards the end that troubled the Sri Lankan batsmen. Harbhajan Singh was the pick of the bowlers with figures of 2-58 in his 10 overs, picking up the key wicket of Dilshan. He was the only bowler to bowl with an economy of less than 6 on that run feast day. It all boils down to how the players handle their nerves when things don’t go according to the plan.

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