Yuvraj Singh scored an unbeaten 95 as India easily beat Sri Lanka by seven wickets in the deciding fourth one-day international, in Visakhapatnam, on Saturday, and won the series 2-1.
The dashing left-hander scored his runs off only 83 deliveries, inclusive of 11 boundaries and three sixes, as India chased down Sri Lanka's total of 259-7 in the allotted 47 overs with six overs to spare.
He was given good support from former India captain Sourav Ganguly, who scored 58 off 74 balls. The duo was involved in an unbeaten stand of 145 runs for the fourth wicket as India ended up scoring 263 for 3.
Earlier, Sri Lanka rode on a classy 107 off as many deliveries from Chamara Silva after being precariously placed at 56 for 4 in the 13th over.
Chamara was adjudged man of the match, while Ganguly, who scored 168 runs, inclusive of two fifties, in the three matches, at an average of 84.00, was man of the series.
The first match in Kolkata was rained off.
Sri Lanka innings
Never mind the World Cup, this one we have to win, was the thinking in both camps per the respective captains' interactions with the media the day before the final game of the four-match ODI series.
When batting first, as Sri Lanka was in Vizag after being inserted by Rahul Dravid on a wicket that had a little less juice, and a little more runs, than the Indian captain guessed, that intent translates into wanting to go hard at the ball, especially during the power plays.
And here, that resulted in a bizarre spell of play when, in the space of 28 deliveries, Lanka lost its top four batsmen for 12 runs.
Sanath Jayasuriya, in danger of being anointed Zaheer Khan's bunny, had played the left arm seamer with great care, keeping him out initially and when line and length afforded, hitting hard in an attempt to dominate.
In the 7th over, Jayasuriya had first slapped an overpitched Zaheer ball to long off, then picked one up off middle and leg in trademark fashion, taking on the man at deep square and clearing the ropes.
And then, he fell: Ajit Agarkar, who on the day had been hitting speeds in the mid 140s, sent down a well disguised slower one; Jayasuriya picked it up on the half volley and drove loose, and straight, to Sourav Ganguly at cover (22/19; 42/1).
Mahela Jayawardene started out as though he intended to whack his way out of his personal batting slump; his recent touch hasn't been good enough for such luxuries, and he paid the price when he tried to pick Agarkar up off his pads and clear long on. The shot was played too early; the batsman got under the ball and elevated it off the thick outer edge, to find Robin Uthappa at cover (7/8; 50/2).
Kumar Sangakkarra's was the most bizarre of the dismissals. Zaheer sent one down the channel, on fullish length. The batsman drove casually at it, head thrown back and balance all awry. Uthappa at cover juggled, held his nerve first and then the catch (1/2; 52/3).
Sreesanth had gotten into the XI owing to another of Munaf Patel's little niggles. He was brought in as relief for Zaheer in the 13th over, and he struck first ball, with a delivery at top pace that lifted off length and ducked back in. The batsman, who till then had been playing with poise and considerable control, looked to force off the back foot and managed only to inner edge onto his stumps (19/37; 56/4).
It took the in-form Tillekeratne Dilshan, and Chamara Silva, to dig deep and get the revival under way. The wicket was a batting beauty, the bowlers had to work hard to get fractional movement - the two batsmen, unlike their peers earlier, merely played the right lines and lengths, picked their shots with care, and when they could, hit through to get Lanka's board ticking again.
The three seamers had done a superb job under the conditions; when Harbhajan Singh came on to bowl in the 20th over, the board read 73/4; the run rate was 3.4 and Lanka was struggling.
The offie chose this moment to have an off day, repeatedly bowling too full and more often than not drifting onto the pads. Chamara Silva took to the off spinner, slapping the sweep in the 22nd over, then sweeping very fine in the 24th, waltzing down the track to loft the bowler back over his head and over the long on fence next ball, and again dancing down to loft the four over mid on as follow up.
While Bajji was attempting to correct lines and lengths at one end, Ganguly came on to bowl wicket to wicket seam up; by way of bonus, he took out the dangerous Dilshan with a fullish delivery just outside off that was held back a fraction. The batsman drove at it on the up, hit too early thanks to the step down in pace, and Uthappa at cover dived forward to hold a great catch as the ball was dropping ahead of him (28/44; 124/5).
The 68-run partnership, at a tick over 4.7 rpo, had brought Lanka back into the game; Silva by then was batting in a dream, and the in-form Russell Arnold
Sehwag took over from Ganguly (6-0-29-1), created a couple of chances in his first over with an abortive LBW shout and a top-edged sweep that just eluded Yuvraj at short fine leg, then struck in his second.
The part-timer bowls quicker, and hits the deck harder, than Bajji; Arnold looked to bludgeon him against the turn, hit too late thanks to the extra pace, and managed only to toe it up in the air for Sreesanth to hold at long on (22/35; 165/6).
That wicket, of an in form batsman in the 37th over, could have been curtains for Lanka heading into the death. Chamara Silva, however, upped his game several notches; Maharoof hung in there and played the odd big hit, and between them, ensured Lanka continued to tick the board over at some speed - the 50 of the partnership came off just 39 deliveries.
Chamara Silva was particularly impressive, playing along clean classical lines at the start of his knock and, even into the death, finding orthodox shots to play without needing too much of risky improvisation. The stroke play was dazzling, in a non-fussy sort of way, the hall mark being an awareness of the field, and the options he had at any point, to any ball, to pierce them - time and again, he moved fluidly across his crease, to create angles that he could work with magical wristwork and impeccable timing.
It was fitting that the batsman got to his first ever ODI hundred (102/105 deliveries) off the last over of the innings - the knock ranks even ahead of Sangakkarra's century earlier in the series, for the quality of play and the caliber needed to haul Sri Lanka out of jail, first, then see the side home to a sizeable score.
At the other end, Maharoof played an astonishing shovel-drive off Zaheer that powered the ball over the long on fence, but fell next ball, scooping a drive to Karthik at cover after misreading the slower ball (28/28; 229/7; partnership 64 runs at 8 rpo).
Lanka ended on 259/7, clubbing 91 runs in the last ten overs. Chamara Silva survived a let off, off the last ball of the innings, as a sliced drive went into, and out of, Yuvraj's hands at backward point.
The final score is challenging, on a wicket where the ball, especially after the shine and early hardness has worn off, stops a fraction off the deck making driving on the rise a particularly risky proposition.
Lanka have the bowling options in the middle, and the fielding skills, to defend this one; India's best hope is a rousing start that brings the total within manageable limits before the powerplays are done.
When, in the match report of the Goa game, I mentioned that though Virender Sehwag only made 12, for the first time in a long while I liked the way he batted, a friend wrote in asking, do you think we will get to see Viru at his best, batting with Robin Uthappa at his best?
Wish fulfillment, for said friend, has been immediate: Sourav Ganguly walked out with Sehwag to open the Indian innings, but retired complaining of giddiness just four balls into the innings - and out walked Uthappa.
A streaky outer edge off Malinga got Uthappa off the mark; he was then beaten thrice in succession and seemed to be struggling to pick the line off the bowler's peculiar action.
Noticeably, Uthappa then concentrated on getting behind the line and getting the ball onto bat by way of sighters; equally noticeably, Sehwag strolled over for a calming word with his younger partner.
Maharoof, meanwhile, was having one of his usual off days; his first three overs had gone for 22, including an endless first over that went for three wides, one no ball, and two fours courtesy Sewhag.
Fernando came on as replacement, and Uthappa decided he didn't like him too much. The first ball from the bowler was ruthlessly carved through cover point. A couple of singles later, Uthappa walked across his crease to change the line and flicked behind square. Next ball, same treatment - only this time, the flick was much finer, flashing past a diving Sangakkarra. And to round things off, Uthappa then eased onto his front foot and played a stunning on drive on the rise, to a delivery shading the 140k mark.
From then on, it was berserker time. Malinga attempted to scare him with a bouncer; he was greeted with a fierce hook that sent the ball soaring several rows deep into the fans at fine leg. Stunning though that hit was, the piece de resistance came a little later, when he took a long stride out, to a length ball from the express bowler, transferred his weight back and still off the front foot, clubbed it to the midwicket fence.
Murderous, in fact, was the leitmotif; maybe even contemptuous, as Uthappa kept coming onto the front foot regularly, regardless of pace, and smashing through the line on either side of the wicket. One such bludgeoning punch over extra cover in the 12th over brought up his 50 off just 33 balls, with nine fours and one six.
The batsman's strength is a certain fearlessness; his weakness, the same. On the evidence thus far, he finds it easy to take off like a runaway train down a slope; he is not, though, any too good at taking that foot off the pedal.
Immediately after getting to his 50, he attempted to launch Maharoof over the top, but only managed to shovel the ball high and into Jayasuriya at widish mid off (52/37; India 92/1 in the 15th over.
At the other end, Sehwag had started off like a man in a hurry but once Uthappa got going, the senior batsman began tapping the ball around for singles, heading off to the other end and leaning on his bat, watching the fireworks from the best seat in the house.
Dinesh Karthik came out at three, and was clearly batting well above his weight. Sehwag promptly shifted up the gears, cracking Maharoof to the deep backward point boundary, then crunching him off his toes wide of point, then letting a ball go past him and playing the latest of late cuts to find the third man fence.
Fernando made one climb, Karthik couldn't get out of the way and managed a leading edge that the bowler held, lunging to his left to complete the take (1/9; 106/2).
When Uthappa left, Sehwag was 30/34. By the time Karthik got out, Sehwag had moved to 42 off 38, as he took on the onus of scoring at speed. And then, just when he finally looked good to bat forever, he got out, in what even for Sehwag is a bizarre manner.
A Malinga delivery outside off was eased to third man; the batsmen walked the single but Sehwag, inexplicably, didn't even bother to complete it. Having neared the crease at the other end in a geriatric walk, he casually turned around to see what his partner was up to.
The throw had come in; Sangakkarra gathered, realized that Sehwag was wool-gathering, shucked his glove and fired down the stump at the opposite end before the batsman could react - the most ridiculous end to the best he has batted in the last four, five months (46/44; 118/3).
The good news, from a World Cup point of view, is that the batsman is clearly feeling good about himself again; nowhere did that show as much as in the way he played the pace of Malinga. To every delivery, he was perfectly in line and though Malinga was bowling at furious pace, invariably had time on his hands to play his shots.
The wicket brought Yuvraj Singh and Sourav Ganguly got together; the focus shifted from brute power and animal cunning to silken timing and easy, almost casual, elegance.
As soon as Ganguly returned at the fall of Karthik's wicket, Fernando tried bouncing him; the batsman was clearly prepared for that, whipping into a pull and hitting up from under to comfortably clear the long leg fence.
An over later, it was Yuvraj's turn. This time, Fernando was on the fullish side; Yuvraj leaned forward and eased it, with the most effortless of flicks, over long leg for the six that opened his account.
Jayawardene brought on Malinga Bhandara, the man who had trapped Ganguly in front last game when the southpaw aimed an ill-judged sweep. This time, though, Ganguly greeted him with his patented waltz down the track, legs scissoring like a javelin thrower's and the full, easy swing of the bat depositing the ball over the sightscreen behind the bowler's back.
Jayasuriya came on to play his usual restricting role; Ganguly danced out again, picked a perfectly good delivery up and lofted it high into the midwicket stands. Russell Arnold came on and tried a flat, fast line; Ganguly danced out again, adjusted the angle of his shot, and hit through long on, equally flat, and hard, to find the fence with ease.
It was that kind of day - a challenging target was being mocked at with ruthless strokeplay, with Yuvraj creaming fours to counterpoint Ganguly's sixes.
Like Sehwag, Yuvraj chose this game to come back from the cold. He took a while to get the range of his shots, but once he did, the results were spectacular. Exemplar, his treatment of Fernando when Jayawardene gave up on spin and turned back to pace in the 34th over. Yuvraj went onto the front foot, then changed his mind, let the ball go past him, and played a square drive as late as you have ever seen it; a ball later, he was down on his knee, freeing his arms and hit flat and stunningly hard over cover point to bring up his 26th ODI fifty50 (58 balls, five fours, one six).
Jayawardene called back Malinga in the 36th over and with the older ball to work with, the bowler responded with characteristic, ferociously fast late-swinging Yorkers. Both batsmen were well set by then, though, and managed to keep the bowler at bay - by that stage, the ask rate was down to 4.2, and Yuvraj and Sourav could afford to give the odd over, or bowler, some respect.
Bhandara came on in the 37th and Yuvraj hoisted the first ball of the new spell over midwicket with a lovely shimmy down the track; two deliveries later, he stayed back, and paddle-swept very fine to the fine leg fence.
Lanka had made 91 in its last 10 overs to post a sizeable target; India headed into the death needing a mere 36 off the last ten, with seven wickets in hand and on cruise control.
Ganguly brought up his 69th ODI 50 off 65 balls (two fours, three sixes); the partnership at that point was worth 108 off 122 deliveries and had ensured against any late innings alarms. With Ganguly again looking unwell and showing signs of cramp, Yuvraj decided to finish things off in style, unveiling a series of stunning drives, carving Maharoof in the 41st over twice through midwicket, then hoisting him over long on, square cutting him through point and lofting him over mid on to carve 22 runs off the over and race to the post.
Ganguly, despite cramping up towards the end, went back unbeaten on 58/74; Yuvraj produced the innings of the season, to remain unbeaten on 95/83. The two put on 145 off 143 deliveries and India had 36 deliveries, and 7 wickets, in hand when the win was sealed.
As victories go, this was the most authoritative India has been in a long while; at no point during the chase was the issue remotely in doubt.
With this, full-fledged match practice for the World Cup ends; the focus now shifts to nets-work, fine-tuning, and honing of basic skill sets. On the evidence of these games, two areas the team could with profit work on is bowling at the death, and fielding - especially inside the circle from where the inability to pull of direct throws continues to cost the team.