ICC CHAMPIONS TROPHY 2017: Sri Lanka seal record chase to throw group wide open

This was the kind of game the Champions Trophy 2017 was crying out for – a competitive contest between two sides not marred by periodic arrival of rain. Sri Lanka and India played out an absorbing contest at The Oval. The game saw everything you’d expect to see on a flat batting surface. There was a customary Champions Trophy century for Shikhar Dhawan, his third in this event and 10th in ODIs. There was also a century stand in each innings, some pressure-building run-outs in a 300-v-300 contest and some smart middle-overs bowling from both sides.

Disrupting a game that had otherwise gone according to expected script, Angelo Mathews, returning to international cricket after 10 months out with various injuries, calmly tucked Umesh Yadav behind square as Sri Lanka recorded their joint-highest run chase in all ODIs. Their victory, achieved with eight balls and seven wickets to spare, brought the Champions Trophy roaring back to life, with the final round of Group B fixtures – India vs South Africa and Pakistan vs Sri Lanka – effectively rendered as straight shoot outs for the semifinal slots. Who would have thought that?

At the heart of this famous chase was a 158-run partnership between Danushka Gunathilaka (76 off 72) and Kusal Mendis (89 off 93). For all its craft and calmness, the partnership was in many ways an exhibition of what Sri Lanka ought to have done in their chase against South Africa, where they threw their game away after motoring along to 92 for 1. The foundation is what captains and coaches talk about most and Gunathilaka and Mendis built Sri Lanka one that was immensely sturdy. It might well have been the higher priority after Niroshan Dickwella fell early in the chase. India’s vaunted bowling attack surprisingly lacked the cutting edge to weave its magic on a flat track and cashing in on its lack of incisiveness was the most sensible the two youngsters could do.

Gunathilaka and Mendis did just that. For a batsman, who was playing the game only due to senior batsman Upul Tharanga’s suspension, Gunathilaka showed exemplary composure even as Sri Lanka struggled with their run-rate at the start of the chase. He was, however, quick to cash in on anything full, using his powerful frame to drive the pacers down the ground for boundaries.

The defining innings of the game, though, was played by Kusal Mendis. His 89 runs notwithstanding, Mendis was instrumental in negating one of India’s biggest threats in a run defence – Ravindra Jadeja. He shimmied down the track and lofted the spinner over mid-wicket. He followed that up with a slog sweep and then sat back for the drag down and pulled Jadeja into the stands. Jadeja’s first four overs went for 36. There was no sign of desperation in Sri Lanka’s chase. They simply eschewed reputations and landed blow after blow to knock India off their pedestal.

With his lead spinner rendered ineffective, Virat Kohli had to bring himself and Kedar Jadhav on to fill the remaining overs. To that effect, they did well to concede only 35 runs from a combined six overs but such a move reeked of distress. India did claw themselves back into the contest briefly when Gunathilaka took on Umesh Yadav’s arm from the deep and then Mendis perished 11 short of a deserved century courtesy a direct hit off his own bowling from Bhuvneshwar. The twin run-outs were the only bright spots in an otherwise dreary effort on the field for India, who once confronted with the assured presence of Mathews (52* off 45), had little left in their bowling arsenal to see it home. Sri Lanka had one final nervy moment when Kusal Perera hobbled out with what appeared to be a cramp in the leg but Asela Gunaratne (34* off 21) finished the chase off in a flourish amidst the blaring celebratory trumpets from the Sri Lankan contingent in the crowd.

It is a result that’ll perhaps force Kohli to reconsider his side’s batting approach, although he didn’t read much into it at the end of the game. Put in to bat on an overcast morning, India’s openers batted leisurely to reach 48 for no loss after 10 overs. While both Rohit Sharma and Dhawan accelerated in the second half of their 138-run opening stand (their 10th century stand opening the batting in ODIs), Rohit’s untimely dismissal – dismissed for 78 in the 25th over – and a subsequent wobble involving Kohli (0 off 5) and Yuvraj Singh (7 off 18) meant they were forced into another mid-innings rebuilding phase. In fact, between overs 30 and 40 of their innings, India managed only 49 runs. At a corresponding phase, Sri Lanka scored 63 in the chase and that difference proved decisive in the game’s final outcome.

Even as Dhawan got to his milestone in the 40th over, Sri Lanka stayed in control of proceedings as the returning Thisara Perera and Asela Gunaratne offered much-needed control through the last of the powerplay overs. Dhoni turbocharged India’s final flourish, scoring a rapid 63 as India plundered 103 in the final 10 but their conservative approach through the middle paved the way for a famous Sri Lanka win.

Brief scores: India 321/6 in 50 overs (Shikhar Dhawan 125, Rohit Sharma 78, MS Dhoni 63; Lasith Malinga 2-70) lost to Sri Lanka 322/3 in 48.4 overs (Kusal Mendis 89, Danushka Gunathilaka 76; Bhuvneshwar Kumar 1-54) by seven wickets.

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