September 17, 1982 is an important date in the history of Sri Lankan cricket. After making their baby steps in Test cricket with matches against England and Pakistan, Sri Lanka embarked on their first ever tour of India, a one-off Test match followed by three ODIs.
The neighbouring countries, who share a rich cultural history, had faced each other just once before, in a World Cup match in 1979. The Test in Chennai had some big names from either side and it would be remembered as the first time Sri Lanka nearly pulled off a Test victory.
They had lost their inaugural Test against England in Colombo before losing 2-0 to Pakistan in a three-match Test series in Pakistan. When they set out for the Indian series, little did they know that it was the beginning of a strong relationship that would culminate in 41 Tests in the next 35 years?
How the match progressed
Sri Lanka won the toss and opted to bat first on a pretty flat wicket at the M.A Chidambaram Stadium in Chepauk, Chennai. The burly, mightily talented late bloomer, Duleep Mendis, led Sri Lanka’s fight with an aggressive century coming at a strike rate of 85.36. Roy Dias, another backbone of Sri Lanka’s inexperienced middle-order, gave Mendis company in a terrific 153 run partnership that lifted Sri Lanka from 11/2.
But Dilip Doshi, that county cricket hero who was forced to play under the shadow of Bishan Singh Bedi, broke the back of Lanka’s line-up with five wickets, three of them – Duleep Mendis, Arjuna Ranatunga and Anura Ranasinghe – coming in the space of one run. Somachandra de Silva and Ravi Ratnayeke lifted Sri Lanka past 300 but Kapil Dev cleaned up the tail to bowl Lanka out for 346.
India responded strongly, with Sunil Gavaskar and Arun Lal putting on 156 for the opening wicket. When Ashantha de Mel got rid of Arun Lal, Dilip Vengsarkar stood in the way of the Lankan bowlers. Alongside the patient and resolute Gavaskar, Vengsarkar added a further 173 as Sri Lanka’s lead was nearly eclipsed when the duo parted ways owing to Vengsarkar’s run-out on 90.
Gavaskar went on to make a fine hundred but India lost three in quick time before Sandeep Patil and Kapil Dev joined hands. Patil slammed a fabulous ton, becoming the third centurion of the match, while Kapil Dev and Madan Lal assisted in taking India past 500. The hosts declared on 566, with a 220 run lead on the board.
If India thought they could run through Lanka’s batting line-up on a cracking pitch with the help of their spinners, they did not account for two batsmen who were largely responsible for Sri Lanka’s early ascend as a Test nation – Duleep Mendis and Roy Dias.
Once again the two tormented India with some attacking cricket. Dias fell three short of a well-deserved hundred but Mendis slammed his second of the Test, an identical 105. Ranasinghe and de Silva then countered Kapil Dev’s threat with some smart cricket, the former making 77 as Sri Lanka bettered their first innings score and set India 175 for victory. Kapil Dev was largely responsible for reducing Sri Lanka’s lead as he took a five-wicket haul with his immaculate line and length bowling.
175 seemed an achievable target for this Indian batting line-up but it was already afternoon on the final day of the Test and they needed to accelerate. This Test match had proceeded at a rapid rate, a run per over of 4 was quite unusual in Tests at that time. Still, 175 inside two sessions seemed a huge task. Gavaskar put on his thinking cap and changed around the batting order, pushing himself down the order.
Kapil Dev and Sandeep Patil’s quick-fire 62 run association for the third wicket gave the Indian innings some much needed impetus but when Kapil and Patil got out in quick succession and Gundappa Viswanath fell cheaply, India suddenly found themselves in a spot of bother at 94/5.
Ashantha de Mel was bowling the spell of his life and became the first Sri Lankan to record a five-wicket haul in Test match cricket. Gavaskar, who hadn’t planned on batting eventually walked at no.9.
India finished on 135/7, 40 runs short of a victory but importantly three wickets away from an embarrassing loss. Although honours were shared, Sri Lanka would fondly remember this Test as their first real fight in World cricket. They would grow as a Test nation later but the first real seeds of confidence in themselves were sown at Madras on day 5 of that memorable Test match.