How the pendulum swings, one way and the other. In the small matter of four days, India went from being a team who were thrashed in one match, and barely hung on to win another, to one that has taken the upper hand in a five-match series, leading 2-1. And now they find themselves one win away from an elusive prize --- an ODI series win in Sri Lanka --- something no Indian team has managed in the past.
At the best of times it is dangerous to read too much into the form of a team based on one or two ODI matches, but the manner in which India have shaped up, and consequently the conviction with which they are playing, is proving to be an irresistible force for the Sri Lankans, who have faltered ever so slightly from their game plan. India have certainly managed to find some answers to the questions that the Sri Lankans raised. The manner in which India have planned their batting, even if it has not always come off, has shown that Mahendra Singh Dhoni reads the game in an original way. Clearly, the man whose role once was to terrorise opposition bowlers, has adopted a new role for himself, choosing to be the anchor of the innings, unleashing that explosive power only when the shores of safety have been attained.
In the third ODI, Dhoni gave an early hint of that plan, sending Yuvraj Singh in at No. 3 and following that up by promoting S Badrinath to No. 5. Those who have seen Badri bat were surprised that he attacked Ajantha Mendis so early in the piece, but it emerged that this was no adventurism on Badri's part, rather part of the team's plans.
"When Mendis bowls a bad ball you have to punish it so that you can put pressure on him. It's very important to get runs out of bad balls," said Dhoni soon after the match. "That's why Badri's effort was great. He looked to take Mendis on. Till now Mendis has never been under pressure." Even Badri's early dismissal did not shift Dhoni from his steadfast approach, with Rohit Sharma taking on the role of aggressor and the captain holding firm. Like any other plan, this is not one that will work every day, but at the very least it shows that the team is approaching these games with utmost seriousness and preparing itself in the best possible manner.
Sri Lanka, who have been in control for the best part of India's 45-day tour, now find themselves in the unusual position of having to do some serious introspection about their own plans. The manner in which Zaheer has lifted his game, relentlessly attacking at pace with the new ball, has raised doubts about Sri Lanka's choice of batting order. The first hint that the line-up was top-heavy and thin in the middle came when Jayawardene dropped himself down to No. 4, the spot that Kumar Sangakkara usually occupies. Going into the last two games, Sri Lanka will have to look at benching one of their profligate middle-order batsmen — Chamara Silva or Tillakaratne Dilshan — and bring in a regular opener to partner Sanath Jayasuriya, allowing Sangakkara to return to No. 4. On the one hand, Sri Lanka have Mahela Udawatte, an opener in the traditional mould with half-centuries in his last two ODIs, and on the other there's Malinda Warnapura, the form player, who was the third highest scorer for the home team in the Test series. Whoever Lanka choose to draft in, the need of the hour is to provide some solidity at the top and protection against the new ball. It is only then that the middle-order can show the consistency Jayawardene has demanded, and force the issue, like the captain did in vain in the third match.