They smile with such innocence it’s hard to believe they’re capable of any kind of deception.
But the manner in which Muttiah Muralitharan, the mentor, and Ajantha Mendis, the rookie, made some of the best players of spin look foolish, was stunning.
The pair combined to make India’s misery complete, taking 19 of the 20 wickets on offer. India’s first innings effort, if you can call it that, was a capitulation.
The second innings was a surrender that will leave many in the team red-faced, for never before have India followed-on against Sri Lanka, and never have they lost as badly as this, by the small matter of an innings and 239 runs.
When the day began at 159 with four first-innings wickets left, the optimists hoped for a revival. Instead, they got an addition of only 74 to the total. VVS Laxman played a lone hand, defying Mendis and Murali for 56 till he failed to read a googly that broke back in enough to disturb the stumps. Dismissed for 223, India were still 377 adrift and following on.
Surely, a batting line up that included a top order with more than 40,000 Test runs could not collapse twice in succession? They did, and how! If the first innings was an exercise in how not to play quality spin on a true pitch, the second was a reminder that no cricketer is better than his performance on the day.
Records be damned and reputations set aside for a moment, India’s batsmen contrived to be dismissed in a variety of ways, collectively lasting a mere 45 overs.
Virender Sehwag, perhaps looking to make up for his injudicious shot in the first innings, left a doosra from Murali alone, with the ball pitching on the stumps and deviating slightly.
Mark Benson was reluctant to give the decision himself but once the matter was referred to Rudi Koertzen, Sehwag was sent on his way.
Laxman came out at No. 3 and once again brought some semblance of respectability to the proceedings. Mendis showed he had a smart cricket brain to go with extravagant talent, producing another fine googly to trap Laxman. This delivery was faster and flatter and consequently turned less but that was just what was needed to secure the lbw.
Sachin Tendulkar again found a freakish way to get out, attempting to paddle Murali, only to see the ball strike his pad, ricochet off the bat and balloon up on the leg side. Tillakaratne Dilshan anticipated brilliantly at leg slip and plucked a stunning catch.
Gautam Gambhir, who negotiated the spinners through a combination of watchful strokeplay and nimble footwork, was beaten by Murali’s flight and turn. He was stumped for 43.
Sourav Ganguly did not last long, offering an apologetic poke to a sharp offbreak from Murali, only to see Dilshan take his second special catch of the day — this time at second slip.
Rahul Dravid did marginally better, reaching 10, but was scalped by Mendis for the second time.
This time around it was the googly that did the trick, drawing the inside edge onto pad for Malinda Warnapura to catch at short-leg. Once again, the Sri Lankans got it right, calling for the review when Billy Doctrove was unsure if the bat made contact with the ball, and India were speeding towards defeat at 103 for 6.
Dinesh Karthik’s misery continued when he was snapped up for a duck, stabbing a Murali doosra to slip, handing the Kandy magician his 65th Test five-wicket haul. The tail did not hang around, and when Harbhajan failed to pick a Mendis googly and was bowled, the painful Indian innings ended on 138, their lowest ever score against Sri Lanka.
India had lasted just over three hours and nothing in the world could have wiped the smiles off the faces of Murali (6 for 26) and Mendis (4 for 68).
India have bounced back from being 0-1 down in the past but Sri Lanka are not a team that will squander an advantage easily.
India will have to work doubly hard for every run, probe more persistently for each wicket, and above all, find a way to score off Mendis and Murali to stem the rot and ensure that more horrors don’t beckon at Galle.