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Harbhajan, Yuvraj put India in command

Last updated on: December 20, 2005 18:57 IST


Harbhajan Singh claimed seven wickets for 62 runs and Yuvraj Singh scored a blazing half-century as India amassed a first innings lead of 479 runs at the end of day three in the third and final Test against Sri Lanka at the Sardar Patel stadium in Motera, Ahmedabad, on Tuesday.

The ace off-spinner registered his first five-wicket haul against Sri Lanka as the visitors were bowled out for 206, before Yuvraj played a blazing knock of 79 to help India reach a healthy 287 for 9 in 66 overs in the second innings by close of play.

Ajit Agarkar also chipped in with a quick 48 from 43 balls, with six boundaries and a six, as the Indian lower order again frustrated the Sri Lankans with their gutsy batting.

At one stage, India were reduced to 34 for 3, after losing the wickets of Virender Sehwag (0), V V S Laxman (5) and Sachin Tendulkar (19), before Yuvraj took the attack to the Sri Lankans.

Morning session: (75 runs, 5 wickets, 15.2 overs)

Kumble and Harbhajan opened the bowling on the third morning, after the start was delayed by half an hour due to heavy dew on the outfield.

India's main aim was to dismiss the remaining Sri Lanka batsmen as soon as possible and, maybe, impose the follow-on if they failed to reach 199.

They didn't take long to strike on the third morning. Jehan Mubarak was dismissed in the third over of the day for 13. A leg-spinner from Kumble beat the left-hander, who played a forward defensive shot, but the huge turn outdid him and the ball sneaked in between the pads and crashed into the stumps. (144-6, 43)

It was now interesting to see if the Sri Lankan lower order could repeat the showing by their Indian counterparts, who rescued India from a desperate situation. For that, Dilshan needed to guide the lower order and, maybe, achieve their first target: avoiding the follow-on.

Harbhajan continued to spell further trouble for the Lankans, when he produced a stunning catch off his bowling to send back Farveez Maharoof.

The right-hander tried to play a full-pitched delivery down the ground, but was beaten in the flight; he failed to reach the pitch of the delivery and the resultant uppish drive was held by Harbhajan after fully stretching to his right. (155-7, 48)

Harbhajan celebrated his 50th Test match in style, claiming his 17th five-wicket haul, while taking India closer to a huge first innings lead over Sri Lanka.

Dilshan, playing in his customary aggressive style, in spite of the fall of wickets around him, reached his half-century with a push on the off-side. It was his fifth half-century in Tests and it came off 87 balls, including six boundaries.

Malinga Bandara attacked the two spinners right from the start, particularly Harbhajan, whom he hit for two sixes and a boundary early on.

Bandara, on 18, got a lucky break when wicketkeeper Mahendra Singh Dhoni dropped an edge off Harbhajan in the 56th over.

In the 57th over, Kumble, bowling round the wicket, got the outside edge of Dilshan's bat, but the edge went between the slip and the short gully fielder into the boundary ropes to take the score to 187 for 7.

Dilshan and Bandara scored at a quick rate and now it looked unlikely that India would be able to enforce the follow-on.

Dilshan became Harbhajan's sixth victim of the innings, when he played back and was beaten by the extra bounce. The ball went off the gloves and Mohammad Kaif completed a good sharp catch. (198-8, 59.5)

Dilshan was easily Sri Lanka's best batsman, playing positively against the spinners for his innings of 65 from 109 balls, with eight boundaries. He was instrumental in helping Sri Lanka avoid the humiliation of the follow-on.

Muttiah Muralitharan played a single on the leg-side off his first delivery to save the follow-on. In the next over, he tried to hit Kumble straight down the ground, but it went straight back to the bowler, who failed to grab the difficult chance.

Kumble, however, had his man soon, having him stumped for 3. Muralitharan charged down the wicket, but failed to connect and Dhoni completed an easy stumping. (201-9, 60.5)

Last-man Lasith Malinga could not delay the inevitable as his inside edge was easily held by Virender Sehwag at leg slip to hand Harbhajan his seventh wicket of the innings. (206-10, 63.2)

Bandara was left stranded on 28 as Sri Lanka were bundled out for 206, giving India a huge first innings lead of 192 runs.

Harbhajan took three wickets today to finish with figures of 7 for 62 in 22.2 overs. Kumble gave him good support, claiming 2 for 87 in 25 overs.

This is Harbhajan's best bowling figures against Sri Lanka and the first time he has taken a five-wicket haul against the islanders. His previous best against them was 3 for 70 in the previous Test at New Delhi. This was also his best bowling at this ground, beating the 5-71 he took against

England in 2001-02.

Harbhajan also registered the second-best bowling figures at the Sardar Patel stadium after Kapil Dev's 9-83 against the West Indies in 1983. There is no doubt he has set India firmly on course for a huge victory.

Sri Lanka successfully avoided the follow-on, but India should not mind that after getting a huge first innings lead and also the fact that Sri Lanka will bat last in the match, when the pitch will get even more difficult with more assistance for the Indian spinners.

Ideally, India would now look to score some quick some runs in the next two sessions and hand Sri Lanka a target well in excess of 300.

Post-lunch session: (134 runs, 5 wickets, 35 overs)

That India would go for quick runs was evident when Sehwag went for an expansive shot off the first ball of the second innings. He played a wide, short delivery from Malinga straight into the lap of Maharoof on the third man boundary. (0-1, 0.1)

It was clear that India would try to score quickly and Sehwag would act as a catalyst for the same, but he fell to Malinga for the second time in the match in a bid to go for the shots as early as the first ball of the innings. But you cannot criticize the right-hander, for that is the way he plays; sometimes he clicks, sometimes he doesn't.

First innings centurion V V S Laxman could score only five before he was caught behind off Maharoof. He played back to an out-swinger that moved a bit, taking the edge straight to wicketkeeper Kumara Sangakkara. (9-2, 3.4)

Sachin Tendulkar got off to a flying start, hitting two confident boundaries on the off-side, followed by a trademark straight drive, to move to 17 from 15 balls.

In a bizarre move, part-time spinner Tillakaratne Dilshan was introduced in the ninth over, ahead of Muttiah Muralitharan, with the field spread far and wide. It was clear that Tendulkar's quick start had Sri Lanka panicking, and they went on the defensive straight away.

Dilshan nearly took a wicket in his first over, as Gautam Gambhir offered no shot to a straight delivery but the appeal was turned down by Pakistan umpire Nadeem Ghauri.

Dilshan repaid the faith shown by his captain as he claimed the all-important wicket of Tendulkar, who was looking good on 19. The ball pitched on off and middle stump and bounced more than expected, striking him near the right trouser pocket and it was clear that the ball could have missed the stumps, but umpire Ghauri ruled out. (34-3, 12.4)

The loss of the three senior-most players in the side would have no doubt put a lot of pressure on the already under-fire Gambhir.

The upcoming tour of Pakistan and the fact that he is short of technique seemed to be working against him in the middle order as he resorted to play defensively. Also, the presence of Wasim Jaffer in the dressing room would have been playing on his mind.

It was clear that this was the make or break innings for the Delhi left-hander. Grooming youth is one thing, but if they fail consistently their inclusion cannot be justified for long.

Equally important was this innings for Yuvraj, who has justifed his presence in the eleven ahead of Sourav Ganguly, whose exclusion sparked a national row.

But Yuvraj didn't seem to be bothered by anything as he set about in free-flowing manner after a quiet start.

He tore into leg-spinner Malinga Bandara, who was introduced in the 23rd over, hitting him for a huge six and then a boundary off the next ball.

Quite a telling blow in the sense that it not only showed India's positive intent, but also would sort of help the struggling Gambhir.

Indeed, it seemed that Yuvraj's confidence rubbed on Gambhir, who finally found his favourite cut short going as he hit Dilshan for two boundaries through the third man region to take the score to 81-3 after 24 overs.

The two good overs before the drinks break forced Atapattu into a change as he brought Muralitharan into the attack.

The off-spinner struck immediately, tempting Gambhir with a wide, short delivery; the batsman obliged, edging to wicketkeeper Kumara Sangakkara. The left-hander's stay in the middle was a battle in itself, a struggle against the poor run of form. (81-4 24.2)

The left-hander stayed at the wicket for 107 minutes, played 71 deliveries for four boundaries, but mostly played behind the wicket. There were no shots in the 'V' between mid-on and mid-off, clearly underlining how much he struggled during his stay in the middle. He scored 54 runs in this series at 10.80, with a highest of 30, not the returns you expect from your opener.

Mohammad Kaif took cue from Yuvraj's book and after facing just 11 balls danced down the wicket to hoist Muralitharan for a huge six. The Indian middle order is not yet a settled one and there could be some slots available, and a good knock from Kaif could well seal his spot for Pakistan.

Yuvraj didn't seem affected by the fall of wickets and a powerful sweep for a boundary against Muralitharan took India to 100 for 4 in 29 overs to swell the overall lead to 292.

But Kaif failed to deliver, though it could be said that he was looking for some quick runs. The right-hander made just 9, before he was leg before wicket to a faster delivery from Bandara.  (100-5, 29.2)

Dhoni entered to a huge reception from the Motera crowd. They knew that he could provide some entertainment as India chased some quick runs.

Yuvraj's positive approach against Muralitharan forced Atapattu to replace him after just three overs in the second spell, bringing on pacer Malinga in the 31st over of the innings to dish out some short-pitched stuff, but the first short delivery was dispatched with total disdain to the mid-wicket fence. The ball disappeared even before you realised that the shot had been played.

Another shot in the next over off Malinga was more unbelievable; a short delivery that bisected the two fielders on the square left fence as he moved to 45.

He hit a neat flick towards the square leg fence off the last ball before tea to bring up his half-century. His third half-century in Tests took him 63 balls, included nine boundaries and a six.

Dhoni was unbeaten on 14 from 19 balls as India went into the tea break at 134 for 5 in 35 overs, an overall lead of 326 runs.

After the loss of Tendulkar, it looked as if Sri Lanka would tighten the screws and make scoring difficult for the Indians, but Yuvraj's swashbuckling innings dashed all their hopes, if there was any.

The session was a tale in itself of two men battling for survival in the team; one succumbed to the pressure, while the other just kept blossoming with every ball he faced.

Yuvraj looked like a man possessed and this innings showed that he is the best of India's next generation. He will have some more time to enjoy his stay in the middle, should India decided to declare after a few overs.

Post-tea session: (153 runs, 4 wickets, 31 overs)

Muralitharan struck off the very first ball after the tea break, dismissing Dhoni leg before wicket for 14. (134-6, 35.1)

Yuvraj continued in the same fashion after the tea interval and slammed three boundaries off Muralitharan in the 38th over. The in-form Irfan Pathan also looked to get on with the scoring as soon as he came to the wicket.

Yuvraj blazed away for his 83-ball knock of 75 before being caught behind off Bandara. The Punjab left-hander was just unstoppable during his stay at the wicket, hitting 13 boundaries and a six, to help propel India's scoring rate and afford them the luxury of declaring their innings as early as possible. (174-7, 42.1)

Pathan then took over the mantle from Yuvraj, hitting four boundaries for his 27, before he was bowled by Muralitharan. But the loss of wickets was hardly a concern for India as the overall lead had now swelled to a mammoth 390 runs. (198-8, 45.4)

The lower order was once again proving to be a thorn in the side for the Sri Lankan attack, as they not only scored quickly, but also refused to give in their wickets away cheaply.

Ajit Agarkar also displayed his batting abilities to the fullest, hitting a flurry of boundaries and even hit Sri Lanka's premier batsman for a straight six down the ground. It showed how much the tail had worked on their batting. Even getting the tail-enders was now proving to be a tough task for the Sri Lankan spinners.

As Laxman had said yesterday, the Indian lower order batsmen had worked hard on their batting, which not only helped swell the score, but also frustrated the already-sagging Lankans.

Agarkar was unlucky to fall two runs short of his half-century when he was dismissed caught and bowled by Bandara, bowling round the wicket, with a ball that pitched on the rough areas outside the leg-stump. (247-9, 56)

The lead was now 439 runs, but still India preferred to carry on batting. One thought that, maybe, they would try a few overs at the Sri Lankans before the close of play but they carried on batting.

Harbhajan loves batting when he is given a free license to have a go at everything and today too he relished his batting as Sri Lanka were looking clueless even against the last pair of Harbhajan and Kumble.

Kumble and Harbhajan, both hit a six each, to finish unbeaten on 23 and 19 respectively as India reached 287 for 9 in 66 overs at close on day three, taking an overall lead of 479.

The credit for India's commanding batting display must go to Yuvraj, who played a sizzling knock of 75. He along with Gambhir and Kaif were under the microscope, but the Punjab left-hander came out top and his blazing knock took the stuffing out of the Sri Lankan team.

Muralitharan once again failed to exert any sort of impression on the Indian batsmen, specially the lower order, as they went after him with gay abandon. He finished with 3 for 90 in 21 overs, while Bandara was the other most successful bowler with 3 for 66.

The last three matches played here ended in draws and every time the target for the chasing target was in excess of 350, but this time India have plenty of time in hand. With two days to go, which means 180 overs, it's going to be a tough ask for the young Sri Lankan batting line-up against the likes of Kumble and Harbhajan.

It would be interesting to see how long they can survive – whether they go down fighting or just surrender tamely.

Harish Kotian in Ahmedabad