VVS keeps his head

VVS Laxman’s steady unbeaten 71 helped India recover from 97-5 to reach 247-6 at the end of the first day’s play in Ahmedabad. Laxman took advantage of Sri Lanka’s being without both Chaminda Vaas and Dilhara Fernando due to illness to make his 24th Test match fifty. The match is now evenly poised, on a pitch offering help for both batsmen and bowlers – Irfan Pathan was unbeaten on 39 at the other end.

India knew they would be without key batsman Rahul Dravid for this game, with him having been struck down by gastroenteritis in the days leading up to the game. Virender Sehwag became India’s third captain of 2005 in his absence, and Mohammad Kaif slotted into the lineup at number six. Sehwag won the toss and promptly chose to bat, with Sri Lanka’s bowling in its weakened state.

The new-ball attack of Malinga and Maharoof struggled to make the breakthrough early on – Malinga’s unusual action leading to some rather wild deliveries, although Maharoof was accurate without being spectacular. The first wicket came with the score on 31, Gautam Gambhir hooking Malinga, rather unwisely, straight to debutant opener Upul Tharanga at midwicket from well outside off-stump. This brought Laxman to the crease, and he and Sehwag successfully negotiated the remainder of a morning session shortened by dew on the ground, which caused an hour’s delay to the start of play.

It was there that the standard of bowling picked up. Sehwag played down the wrong line to Malinga and was bowled off his pads, and Maharoof began to exert great control and movement off the pitch. Sachin Tendulkar was tested with some short bowling by Malinga, but hung in there for 23, before being surprised by the bounce of a delivery from Muttiah Muralitharan. Murali was as much of a danger today as always, having the Little Master caught at short-leg by Jehan Mubarak.

Yuvraj Singh and Kaif came and went – one prodding forward at Murali, the other with another mistimed pull shot, this time off Malinga Bandara. This brought crowd favourite MS Dhoni to the crease, and he didn’t disappoint, playing some outstanding strokes as he and Laxman took India further away from the mire they appeared stuck in at 97-5. Dhoni looked impressive, as he has increasingly done in recent months, and was solid in defence and flamboyant in attack. He hit seven boundaries in compiling 49 before being trapped in front by a Murali off-break, after a partnership of 86 with the diligent Laxman.

Irfan Pathan was the next man in, fresh from his sparkling 93 as a makeshift opener in the last match, and he again found some form with an unbeaten 39 from 64 balls. He continues to deliver lower-order runs at a decent rate, and if he can continue in this vein of form whilst also delivering wickets, he will surely be a force to be reckoned with in years to come. His partnership of 64 so far with Laxman appears to be the deciding factor in who will have the upper hand in this Test – if it is broken quickly tomorrow, Sri Lanka will find themselves with a good chance of dismissing India for a total which is well short of competitive.

By the end of the day, India found themselves in a position which could easily see them record a total which poses a challenge for the Sri Lankan batsmen – likewise, Sri Lanka will feel that one or two more wickets could see them wrap up the Indian innings very quickly. India find themselves once again indebted to VVS Laxman’s ability to keep his head in a crisis – although he was given a reprieve by the umpires over a chance at short-leg which he edged, he will be the key to what will surely be a tense day’s play tomorrow.

India 247/6
VVS Laxman 71*, MS Dhoni 49, I Pathan 39*
M Muralitharan 3/76, S Malinga 2/62

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