The venue is Feroz Shah Kotla in the first week of December. It’s the final day of the Test series in which India already have an unassailable lead. And with three sessions left, a win here for India’s opponents has been pretty much ruled out. It was a question of just how quickly the hosts can bowl the visitors out. It didn’t start very well, with just one wicket – albeit a big one – in the first session for Ravindra Jadeja. But with one session to go, at tea, India still needed five wickets to win the match.

This was the Test match in the ‘Freedom Series’ against South Africa two years back, to the day. Turned out, against South Africa – the then-World No 1 ranked Test team – they could. R Ashwin and Umesh Yadav ran through the remaining five wickets in no time in the final session to break the Proteas’ marathon blocking effort – a blockathon, if you will.

But faced with the *exact* equation on Wednesday, against the side that has set new records for international defeats in 2017, Virat Kohli and Co were found wanting. Sri Lanka, in their sixth Test of the year against their mighty neighbours, finally showed showed they had some fight in them when put under pressure.

Dhananjaya de Silva set the tempo with his fearless approach, not afraid to take on the spinners and pacers alike. Dinesh Chandimal hung around long enough to stitch a vital century partnership. Then with the centurion Dhananjaya unable to continue, debutant Roshen Silva and livewire Niroshan Dickwella finished the job, making sure the Sri Lankans can leave the Kotla with their heads held high. It was a fantastic batting effort against the world’s best Test team.

Centurion Dhananjaya unable to continue batting. Screengrab
Centurion Dhananjaya unable to continue batting. Screengrab

There are, of course, differences between the matches against South Africa and Sri Lanka. Against Hashim Amla’s men, this Indian team were still on the verge of becoming the best team in the world. The series might have been won, but the hunger to keep winning was evident on that final day. On the least helpful pitch during that controversial series, Ashwin and Jadeja and toiled away on the final day, running in with intent, trying everything in their armoury.

“At all stages, the bowlers were ready. They told me there was no Tests for six more months, so we can bowl all day. Jadeja said he was ready to bowl till 4:30 if I wanted him to, as did Ashwin,” Kohli would say then.

Lacking intensity

Against Sri Lanka though, on an admittedly benign wicket, there was not the same intensity seen. And more importantly, the half chances that were created, were not taken. The story of the first innings would have been different, as Kohli admitted after the match, if India’s catching at slips was any good. They dropped five catches overall in that innings, without which the deficit facing Sri Lanka would have been higher.

Jadeja’s no-ball to dismiss Chandimal, Ashwin’s dropped return catch against Dhananjaya, Saha’s missed stumping to remove Dickwella – the last one at a time similar to when India got their breakthrough in the final session on that Monday against the Proteas that triggered the final collapse.

These were the moments that India failed to seize on a final day when they took just two wickets in 87 overs. Well, two wickets on paper – even the Angelo Mathews’ dismissal was technically off a no-ball that went unchecked.

Two Sri Lankan wickets in 87 overs. Without taking anything away from the Sri Lankan batsmen, it is not becoming of the world’s best Test team in their own backyard on the final day of a Test match. With only four bowlers at his disposal, Kohli did not seem to have enough plans to account for this fightback by the visitors.

It almost seemed as if the bowlers were going through the motions towards the second half of the day. It’s perhaps excusable for a tired team at the end of a Test series which – from all that has been said before and during the three matches – was not something on the top of their priority list.

A disappointing day in the office. Screengrab
A disappointing day in the office. Screengrab

It was always about South Africa. Perhaps it was not just the fans, it was in the minds of the players too that to give their everything was not worth it. Of course, the players would never admit to it, but the effort required – the attitude and hunger for wickets – to bowl an opposition out was not the same, two years apart at the same venue.

“When you’re not able to finish off in second innings after having them three down on day four, is bit disappointing. But they played well, they showed composure and confidence. The pitch got tired in the end. They (Sri Lankans) did not give us any chances to get into the game,” Kohli said after the game, the tiredness of the season past visible in his face and audible in his tone. “In hindsight, if we would’ve grabbed our chances in the first innings, maybe they wouldn’t have got so many runs. We should’ve done better. The slip catching and fielding, we need to work on.”

For a captain, who wants his team to be as ruthless on the field as he is with the bat, this was a disappointing day in the office. A 1-0 win for their ninth consecutive series triumph – a record-equalling effort – notwithstanding, the draw against Sri Lanka in the third Test match must have felt like a defeat.