Colombo: In the end, Mahendra Singh Dhoni's punt paid handsome dividends. His decision to go in with a seventh specialist batsman, and to unyieldingly trust Manoj Tiwary's part-time leg-spin, played massive parts in India completing a hat-trick of One-Day International series wins on Sri Lankan soil.
Dhoni temporarily set the Tiwary v Rohit Sharma debate to rest, though Rohit didn't help his cause with another failure, by leaving Rahul Sharma, the leg-spinner, out of the playing XI for Tuesday's fourth ODI. India had made up their mind to chase, Sri Lanka were always going to bat if they won the toss – so Dhoni decided to pack the batting, but not even he would have had an inkling of how much of a masterstroke that would turn out to be.
It didn't take Dhoni long to figure out the nature of the surface at the R. Premadasa Stadium. It was a track where, the harder the ball came on to the bat, the faster it sped off it. Dhoni therefore used only 18 overs of pace, and none whatsoever after the 23rd over. Sri Lanka, batting by choice, laboured to 251 for eight after a promising start, and that only because Lasith Malinga and Rangana Herath threw their bats around while adding 32 in the last three overs.
Tiwary's leg-spin yielded surprise returns, 4 for 61 from 10 unchanged overs in what was a triumphant return to international cricket for the man from Bengal, but there was nothing surprising about the man who masterminded India's run-chase. Virat Kohli made his second hundred in four innings, another masterful lesson in the art of constructing a chase, his decisive 146-run partnership with Suresh Raina propelling India to 255 for four, a six-wicket victory and an unassailable 3-1 lead in the five-match series.
Sri Lanka were well beaten; their tiredness after four months of non-stop cricket clearly showed as they fielded shoddily and put down two straightforward catches, all this after having batted without purpose or direction. They simply had no answers against India's assortment of spin, specialist and part-time, finding it impossible to shed the shackles until Malinga and Herath utilised the long handle towards the end.
Sri Lanka did make a perfect start in defence of their total, Malinga knocking over Gautam Gambhir, the centurion in the last match, in the very first over. Virender Sehwag, however, took the fight to Thisara Perera, who had dismissed him twice in a row, while Kohli gradually played himself in.
India lost Sehwag and Rohit in quick succession, Rohit's horrendous run extended to another innings by a screamer from Nuwan Pradeep, the debutant. With nine runs from four innings, Rohit himself must be desperate for a break now.
Tiwary helped Kohli add 49 for the fourth, but when he fell leg before, India still needed 143, and the match was delicately balanced. Enter Raina.
India were fortunate that two of their best finishers in recent times were together in the middle with a third, Dhoni, still to come. Kohli and Raina began scratchily, their running between the wickets hopefully optimistic, but as they ate away into the runs, Sri Lankan heads dropped. The flashpoint came when Raina, already fortunate not to be adjudged caught behind off Herath by Kumar Dharmasena, the umpire, was put down at slip by Mahela Jayawardena. Then only 19, Raina battered the Sri Lankans, putting on a show in the company of the increasingly confident and maturing Kohli.
The pair added 146 in just 112 deliveries to sweep Sri Lanka aside, India completing their 400th ODI victory in grand style to round off a wonderful day for them where nothing went wrong, apart from the toss.
Jayawardena's decision to bat first was vindicated by Tillakaratne Dilshan, but Upul Tharanga perfected the play and-miss routine before, eventually, finding his feet. Their partnership of 91 had given Sri Lanka the perfect platform from which to launch, but the sluggishness of the surface and the accuracy of the Indian spinners stifled them tremendously.
Dilshan's fall, top-edging a pull off Ashok Dinda, was to set off a stunning chain of events as Kohli, Sehwag, Tiwary and Rohit all played important roles, complementing R Ashwin beautifully. Dhoni eked out 22 overs from his part timers for returns of 5 for 112, Sri Lanka completely becalmed in the middle stages with Lahiru Thirimanne left to shepherd the lower-order.
Jeevan Mendis and Perera both fell in trying to up the pace, and Sri Lanka appeared to have completely thrown it away until Malinga and Herath took 18 off the last over of the innings to somewhat dent Tiwary's figures. Even so, the last ten produced only 66, not a bad effort at all from a team with death bowling woes that used part-timers for seven of those overs.