Colombo: An 11th ODI century for Gautam Gambhir and a breezy 65 from Suresh Raina helped India take the series lead at the Premadasa Stadium on Saturday as they beat Sri Lanka by five wickets, with two balls to spare. The hosts had batted well to reach 286 for 5, with Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Angelo Mathews scoring fifties, but in the end Gambhir and Raina’s knocks proved more valuable as India became the first side to successfully chase a 250-plus target against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka.
Chasing 287, India suffered an early jolt in the second over when Virender Sehwag drove an harmless delivery from Thisara Perera to short cover for 3, but Gambhir was too good for Sri Lanka. First with Virat Kohli - Gambhir was the dominant partner in a 104-run stand, scoring a brisk 55 to Kohli’s measured 38 – and then MS Dhoni (31), Gambhir eased India’s nerves without taking many risks and played some brilliant shots.
However, when Lasith Malinga removed Dhoni and Rohit Sharma in the first two balls of the batting Powerplay, and then went Gambhir was run out for 102, India appeared to be on that mat. But Raina (65 off 45 balls) and Irfan Pathan (34 off 31) put on a match-winning 92-run stand that sealed victory in the final over.
The pair was joined when Gambhir was run out attempting a sharp single to mid-on and just failed to make ground after Isuru Udana hit the stumps. The wicket of the centurion had left Inaid at 190 for 5, not long after Malinga trapped an woefully out-of-form Rohit lbw for a first ball duck in the 35th over, one delivery after he yorked Dhoni.
Raina averted the hat-trick ball by clipping it for a single, and never looked uneasy at the crease. His cutting and driving remained crisp and no doubt buoyed by the solid support from Irfan at the other end, opened up to play some booming drives over the infield. He was dropped on 18 at extra cover and made Sri Lanka pay, crashing an unbeaten 65 from 45 balls.
Raina's innings was a special one, but the innings of the day's was Gambhir's. After Sehwag’s wicket, Gambhir was off with a bang, crashing four boundaries inside the first four overs – three against Sri Lanka’s pace spearhead, Malinga. He didn’t slow much after that rousing start and managed to maintain a strike-rate of at least a run-a-ball throughout his innings. Reputed to be the best player of spin in this Indian XI, Gambhir justified that tag: he didn’t hesitate to come down track while making room, and launched boundaries with ease in the arc between long-off and cover. He looked in superb touch until falling short to Udana's side-on throw.
Sri Lanka would have fancied their chances of victory after making 286 on a good batting deck. Their innings contained two century-plus stands, the first a measured alliance between Sangakkara (73) and Jayawardene (65) which spanned 23.5 overs and helped revive the innings from 20 for 3 after Zaheer Khan and Irfan had rocked the top order. The Sri Lankan veterans batted sensibly without taking risks, instead relying on timing and placement.
Once the pair was dismissed, it was the turn of Mathews (71 off 57 balls) and Jeevan Mendis (45 off 40) - in for Lahiru Thirimanne - to add a record 104 for the sixth wicket. Theirs was an excellent stand, full of sharp running and some fluent hits to the boundary, and took Sri Lanka to a strong total. But in the end, another sixth-wicket pair ended up doing better to take their team to victory.