Hobart: India pulled off a stunning batting display to ensure their chances of qualifying to the final of the CB series were still alive as they beat Sri Lanka by 7 wickets but more importantly gained a bonus point after chasing down 321 in just 36.4 overs on Tuesday. (Scorecard | Points Table)
Turnarounds don't come any better. Fortunes don't change more dramatically. And emotions don't bear a starker contrast. At the halfway stage, Sri Lanka would have felt they had one foot in the final, having left the India bowlers deflated after a dominating performance with the bat. And they would have been right to think that way, the Indian batting having shown little promise in the series and the team on the brink of elimination.
But Virat Kohli put on an imperious display of strokemaking, his malleable wrists powering an Indian fightback conspicuous in its absence on what had been, until now, two forgettable overseas trips. Kohli's innings made a mockery of an imposing score, kept India's finals hopes alive and left Sri Lanka with the unenviable task of beating the form team in the tournament to knock India out.
Given India's poor outings with the bat in their recent games, one would have expected them to struggle to chase a target of 321 in 50 overs. They achieved it in 36.4 - needing to chase it in 40 to stay alive in the series - and did so with Kohli finishing things off in a blaze of glory. Kohli was, as Nathan Astle said after his whirlwind 222 against England in 2002, "in the zone". He dismissed anything that came his way with clinical precision, found the boundary at will whether the field was in or pushed back, ran swiftly between the wickets to catch the fielders off guard and middled the ball with scarcely believable consistency.
While Kohli was the protagonist in India's successful chase, the other characters played their due part. Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar would have wanted to do more but gave India the explosive start they desperately needed to stage a counterattack; Gautam Gambhir continued to be fluent, just four boundaries in a knock of 63 in 64 balls showing the toil behind the runs and Suresh Raina, under pressure to perform, gave Kohli valuable company in a match-winning stand with a spunky cameo.
If the Indians were insipid with their bowling, the Sri Lankans were far worse as wides flowed, gift balls were doled out on the pads with regularity and the fielding buckled under the pressure of an unexpected fightback. Both innings were replete with fumbles, misfields, wayward throws - one of them, had it been on target, could have got Kohli run-out - making batting even more profitable on the easiest track in the series thus far. The brisk start to the chase and the subsequent consolidation by Gambhir and Kohli meant India were in with a fighting chance with two Powerplays still remaining, and both proved highly lucrative.
Kohli made both his own, first targeting Nuwan Kulasekara in the 31st over - which began with India needing 91 in 10 overs for a bonus point - carting three consecutive fours as attempted yorkers failed to meet their desired lengths and served as tempting length balls. Two were whipped - in trademark Kohli fashion, a momentary turn of the wrists imparting tremendous force on the ball - and the other, sliced over point in an act of improvisation.
The Sri Lankan seamers misfired badly but even when they got it right, like an accurate yorker from Malinga, Kohli was able to shuffle across and expertly work it past the short fine fielder. He took 24 from Malinga in the 35th over, flicking him for six and picking four fours past short fine, and finished the game with two thunderous drives through the off side, the second being the clinching blow. A pump of the fists was followed by a roar of elation and relief as a perennially inanimate MS Dhoni calmly trudged on to the field to join in the celebrations.
A win this dominating still seemed a distant possibility when Kohli joined Gambhir at the fall of Tendulkar's wicket. Tendulkar had walked across too far to be caught plumb by Malinga, ending an innings that seemed devoid of pressure and completely uninhibited in its approach. Sehwag and Tendulkar batted with freedom, the former smashing Malinga into the grassbanks behind deep midwicket in a fiery opening stand of 50, and Tendulkar going over the top on the off side and displaying an adeptness in picking Malinga's variations, launching him over mid-on. But at 86 for 2 in the 10th over, with India's two most experienced batsmen back in the pavilion and the required rate still very high, Kohli and Gambhir faced an ardous task.
That both took little time to get going was crucial in maintaining the tempo that had been set. Gambhir steered Kulasekara for four off his third delivery before punching one past midwicket, and Kohli warmed up with one of several whips off Malinga off his second ball. The pair didn't get bogged down despite a 35-ball boundary drought, running swiftly between the wickets, converting ones into twos by putting the outfielders under pressure and making the fielders inside the circle appear redundant by stealing quick ones.
Kohli broke that drought with a drive off Thisara Perara past extra cover and later clobbered Angelo Mathews over the wide long-off boundary. At the halfway stage in the chase, the pair had notched up half-centuries, laying a solid foundation for the onslaught to follow with ten Powerplay overs still remaining. Though Gambhir fell to an accurate throw while trying to steal a second, Raina ended infusing the innings with greater urgency, providing a quicker partner at the other end to Kohli and indulging in some powerplay of his own to help hasten the finish.
The Kohli show overshadowed an assured and commanding performance by Sri Lanka with the bat, with centuries from Tillakaratne Dilshan and Kumar Sangakkara who capitalised on a palpably below-par show from India's bowlers who lacked intensity.
Dilshan shrugged off his initial unease against the swinging ball to gradually open up and march towards his 11th ODI century and Sangakkara played an innings as attractive as several of his abruptly-terminated cameos this tournament, only longer in duration this time, full of confidence and more pleasing to the eye. The determination and focus of trying to bat India out of the game was unwavered in their innings, and the smiles on their faces and the Indians' drooping shoulders suggested a one-way traffic. But body-language is not always a reliable indicator, for it had taken an about turn in three hours' time.