Two southpaws. Both top-order batsmen. One full of flamboyance, the other characterised by silence. One with a big showoff ‘stache, the other with a pair of hands that can perhaps bend steel. One, on Tuesday, repaired his team’s innings. The other set off the fireworks for his team’s triumph.

Shikhar Dhawan counterpunched Sri Lanka after they made early inroads in the Powerplay. But Kusal Perera, when he batted in the Powerplay, beat India to a pulp with his belligerent bat.

India recovered and got rid of Perera before he could inflict more pain as the match headed towards a cliffhanger. But they slipped and fell before they could get there, losing the match by five wickets.

India could have stifled the hosts when they needed 24 off the last three overs with two new batsmen on the crease. But their specialists at the death – Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah – were off duty. And the Lankans ensured that the fire Perera set at the beginning of the innings wasn’t allowed to be doused in the end.

Perera’s demolition job

Till 1.3 overs of the Sri Lankan chase – when Kusal Mendis holed out to Shikhar Dhawan off Washington Sundar – the match seemed like it would course in a familiar direction. India have won all their previous seven T20I games against Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka have won only two of their 14 games at the Premadasa Stadium. Sri Lanka let India score 170-plus after having them at 9/2.

To face the next ball, arrived Perera, with his Ton blade, an ink blue wrist band that masked most of his right arm, and in the multi-coloured jersey of Sri Lanka. But he could have might as well worn a T-shirt that said ‘Keep Calm and Attack’.

For 1.4, he was calm, defending a faster ball pitched on the mid-stump line. But at 1.5, he attacked. Washington decided to slide one in wide to fox him. But the latter saw it, locked it, stretched across off, with enormous power and vicious swing of the bat, deposited the ball over the square leg boundary.

Perera has made a string of low scores in T20Is from mid-2014 to the end of 2016. So, after making a match-winning 77 against Bangladesh last year, he conceded: “I realised I got a lot of starts but wasn’t finishing things off. Getting those 20s and 30s are of no use either to me, or the team. So I strove to bat till the end. When the loose ball comes I am anyway waiting to hit it, but recently I tried to bat long, and that’s what’s helped me.”

Now, he perhaps shackles himself a bit to score big. But on Tuesday, in the third over of the innings, Perera was unchained. The powerful six off Washington must have been a confidence boost. He was ready for the third over; the bowler, Shardul Thakur, didn’t seem like he was.

Third over: Short, short, overpitched, slow and overpitched, above-waist full toss (no-ball), half-volley, short.
The response?
4,4,4,6,5nb,4,dot. 27 runs. Mission accomplished.

“We had to attack in the first six overs. As the target was 175, we needed some momentum,” Perera said after the match. “When you get that kind of start, it is easier for the innings to progress smoothly, but you don’t get that kind of start every game. The first six overs had a great impact on the match.”

Dhawan to the rescue

But before Perera’s carnage was Dhawan’s counterattack.

Dhawan, when he’s in full flow, is a rock song. His batting might lack the melodious timing of Rohit Sharma or the meticulousness technique of Virat Kohli but he’s got a punch that only he possesses in the Indian batting line up. He exhibits a delightful audacity, like he did with a six over the sightscreen off Chameera, that evokes a good feeling similar to the one induced by the powerful riffs of the electric guitar in a rock number. The six in discussion, per se, wasn’t an unbelievable shot – it came off a full toss – but Dhawan’s demeanour, which tells the bowler that he’s the one who’s calling the shots, gives his team and its fans great assurance.

But for a batsman of his calibre, Dhawan, hitherto, never found a purple patch in this format – even if he’s played only 22 T20Is for India. But Tuesday’s game-changing 90 was his third 70-plus score in his last seven T20I innings. Even his best-ever T20I score, however, wasn’t enough on Tuesday to save India.

“It was in the first six overs that they took the game away from us,” Dhawan concurred with Kusal Perera’s statement after the match.

About India’s Powerplay he said, “They took two wickets in the first two overs - that’s the damage they did to us,” Dhawan said. “Usually I’m the aggressor when the side aren’t scoring runs at a quick pace - generally my strike rate is very high. If we didn’t lose a wicket we would have been more aggressive. Today, we had to see that we wouldn’t lose any more wickets. At the end of six overs we were maybe 10 runs short of what we usually achieve.”

But when all is said and done, the decision to give Dhawan the Emerging Player of the Match award was quite baffling.