Sri Lanka's sweeps challenges India's spinners

R Ashwin bowls with the new ball
Sri Lanka v India, 2nd Test, SSC, 3rd day August 05, 2017

The third day's play at SSC was a good illustration of how difficult winning Test matches can be. You nip an opposition out in under two sessions, you ask them to bat on because you suspect the pitch will slow down quickly, and then the opposition batsmen come with a game plan, attack you, have some luck running, and at the end of the day you have two wickets to show for 60 overs' work. The effort to win looks that much bigger because India didn't do too much wrong with the ball. They erred with the selection - Hardik Pandya ahead of Kuldeep Yadav on a turning track - but even he produced the breakthrough at the end of the day.

The cause of what unfolded on day three was quite predictable. Sri Lanka spoke of sweeps and reverse sweeps even coming into the Test, Ajinkya Rahane in a press conference on day two said he anticipated sweeps and that they were a risky option, and history suggests India spinners don't like being swept as Andy Flower, Matthew Hayden and Younis Khan among others have shown.

The effect fluctuated wildly. Dinesh Chandimal delivered on his promise to play these shots but he found square leg first thing in the morning. Niroshan Dickwella continued sweeping and said at the end of the day that losing the captain early in the morning to that shot didn't deter them. "Chandimal is only one wicket," he said. "We are in a good position in the second innings because we kept sweeping."

At the forefront of it was Kusal Mendis, who scored his third Test century. In the second innings, Sri Lanka swept or reverse swept 35 of the 240 balls of spin they faced, a healthy 15%, for 63 runs and no wicket. In the morning, Dickwella swept or reverse swept 15 of the 37 balls of spin he faced, much higher 40%. The impact was there to see, especially on the bowling of Ravindra Jadeja, who went at close to five an over in the second innings. Neither he nor R Ashwin had a wicket to show for it.

The sweep carries a bit of risk so you need top-class execution and a bit of luck. Ashwin complimented Sri Lanka for that. "I thought Mendis batted beautifully," Ashwin said. "He put Jadeja off his length very quickly. Kept on sweeping him, and he was lucky, he got away with it, but credit to him, he batted beautifully."

However, the idea that batsmen are sweeping him excites Ashwin. "You can try and vary your pace," he said when asked what adjustments are required when batsmen sweep so much. "For me, the best option is to try and vary the pace and try and find the top edge, because as it is, I'm a tall bowler. To try and get underneath the bat is a bit of a no-no as far as I'm concerned because you start darting the ball in and you start bowling faster.

"I did try a lot, I went wider, I went straighter. I didn't give him a lot of boundaries in terms of sweep, which he did yesterday. So that was my plan, basically try and get him to play a sweep and... one run is a good trade-off for a top edge, that's how I look at it. As a batsman who's sweeping against me, I don't really mind it, it gives me a good chance. But having seen him for the first time, probably the next time I will try and come in with a different plan."

The other important statistic for the second innings was the number of times the spinners beat the bat without getting the edge: 37 times, one in six balls. This was a little reminiscent of how India kept missing the edge in Pune against Australia earlier this year where the ball turned a lot, but a look at the pitch map will show that they did try to bowl fuller here but with no luck. There was also one big difference here. For Ashwin, the ball didn't turn from the straight here, only from wide outside off, which worked for them if they were turning it back in, but not when taking it away.

"You can change the angles, which I tried from over the stumps," Ashwin said when asked of the adjustments spinners can make when they are missing the edge so often. "It's pretty difficult because from the straight there is not a lot happening. It is only a kind of a visual mirage that you're trying to create, try and turn the ball out from the left-hander and get him miss one that's coming straight. Obviously that didn't happen. With the technology improving more and more, the batsmen are pretty adept at covering their stumps and then probably playing inside the line for ones that are turning away. You do try everything in the middle; some day it works, some days it doesn't."

The other challenge for India will be the dying bounce in the SSC pitch. "I think this wicket will get slower and slower," Ashwin said. "It is not going to be easy work tomorrow for sure. We will have to be really disciplined. I thought we gave a few runs more than ideally we should have given today. Tomorrow we can probably try and squeeze them out and try and nip a few wickets up early. It is going to be very very important. Mind you, it is not going to be easy. Because it is slowing down at a very, very quick pace. Edges aren't carrying. So that means we will have to stick to our guns and try to prise a few wickets out."

India were tested on day three - "Test teams are allowed to bat well," Ashwin said - but how they respond to it will reveal a lot about them. If they do come back well, they will savour the win much more.

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