A schedule stretched too thin, multiple rain interruptions, bullish allotment of reserve days and tepid attendance—the optics haven’t made for a memorable Asia Cup so far.
But somehow, it’s also turning out to be just the kind of World Cup warmup India probably were seeking.
Wins have come defending totals both big and small, on contrasting pitches and not always through predictable means. To conjure all of that in two matches on three consecutive days against Pakistan and Sri Lanka—who were nearly guided home by Dunith Wellalage’s allround effort of 5/40 and a valiant, unbeaten 42—is no mean achievement, especially for a side that still has so many moving parts.
Here’s India’s progress report so far: On two different pitches the openers and the middle-order have been given a thorough workout in a staggered manner. Barring Suryakumar Yadav, all boxes have been ticked while India tinkered around with their middle order. Shreyas Iyer got an outing but a back spasm has hampered his progress, KL Rahul batted at No 4 on Monday and Ishan Kishan on Tuesday.
Bowlers, too, have thrived in unexpected ways. On a track that helped seamers, Kuldeep Yadav spun yarns around Pakistan to take five wickets. And now, on a sticky, two-paced pitch tailor made for spinners, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj took turns at removing Sri Lanka’s top three before India deployed two slow left-arm bowlers in Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel along with Kuldeep to carve a gritty 41-run win.
The match was closer than the scorecard would suggest, courtesy a 63-run seventh-wicket stand between Dhananjaya de Silva and Wellalage who were applying themselves and judiciously dissecting the gaps. But Jadeja provided a timely breakthrough, luring de Silva (who had one eye on the D/L par score) into picking Shubman Gill at mid-on. Kuldeep was again the pick of the bowlers, returning 4/43 even though he had gone for a bit of stick towards the end.
When Sri Lanka were trying to rebuild after losing three quick wickets, Kuldeep stymied that effort by getting Sadeera Samarawickrama stumped by Rahul. That Rahul is shaping up well as wicketkeeper was also evident in the way he lunged to take a one-handed catch of Charith Asalanka. Another wicket in the form of Dasun Shanaka—caught by Rohit at first slip off Jadeja—and Sri Lanka were looking almost down and out at 99/6.
This was after Bumrah had already inflicted the damage early on. One of the few highs of Pathum Nissanka’s brief innings was the crisp drive off Bumrah that fetched him a boundary. Two balls later however, Bumrah made the ball angle into him before it straightened, taking an edge off Nissanka’s feeble push to a diving Rahul. Dimuth Karunaratne was barely surviving when Siraj snared his scalp, luring him into a flashy cut that Shubman Gill did well to hold on to at first slip, but Kusal Mendis was always the prized wicket, especially at home.
Mendis was looking in ominous form on what was clearly a difficult pitch under lights and a fresh spell of shower. There were a few boundaries, including a streaky top-edge off Bumrah before thumping him over midwicket, but what the India pacer came up with next was nothing short of genius. It was a slower dipper alright, but pitched almost at blockhole length, forcing Mendis to jab it out and lob it to Suryakumar—brought in as sub for Siraj—at cover and reduce Sri Lanka to 25/2.
As much as this win should bolster India’s confidence, it shouldn’t also sweep under the carpet their obvious frailties against spinners. Dunith Wellalage returning 5/40 is a clear indication that the left-arm slow bowler to right-handed batter matchup is set to keep India on their toes.
But more worrying is the hard hands and dicey frontfoot work with which most of India’s specialist batters approached Sri Lanka on a pitch loaded in favour of slow bowlers.
Rohit Sharma–the only batter to score a fifty—was unlucky to have a Wellalage ball scoot and stay low after pitching but Gill was nowhere near the pitch of a delivery that spun past his outside edge. Virat Kohli fell trying to force him off his leg, Hardik Pandya was done in by the outgoing delivery like Gill while Rahul was caught and bowled after checking his backfoot punch. The only consolation was that as long as he was batting, Rahul looked the most composed Indian batter against Sri Lanka’s slow bowlers.