It’s been twelve days since I last posted an article here about Sri Lankan Cricket. I did not necessarily expect to be doing the same thing a week and a half later. Certainly, I did not for a moment imagine I’d be posting something so starkly different in tone to the gloomy inquest into the First Test. But, in a year in which Sri Lankan Cricket seemed to be continuously declining, exactly seven years after the tsunami disaster that triggered the inception of this charity, the test side gave their nation something to smile about as they see out 2011. Second Test, Durban: Sri Lanka beat South Africa by 208 runs. Unthinkable? I’d have probably thought so if I hadn’t seen it happen myself.
I’m rarely one for overdramatisation, but it’s worth putting this victory into context. Sri Lanka had never won a test in South Africa. They hadn’t won a test anywhere since July 2010. Performances in 2011 had slipped from new low to new low. Financial troubles at the cricket board went from being an administrative issue to one that directly affected the players. The side was demolished inside three days in the First Test in Centurion. Given all of the above, it was no surprise to me to find ESPN Cricinfo’s preview title for the Durban Test reading “Sri Lanka need a Christmas miracle”. One former South African cricketer suggested in a newspaper that Sri Lanka were not even a match for the South African “A” side (second string side).
A few days later, the headlines are completely transformed. The screams of elation and united team huddle after Rangana Herath knocked back Marchant de Lange’s middle stump to seal the victory said it all. This was history.
The independent observer may point to South Africa’s indiscipline in this match, or highlight that the pitch was perhaps more suited to Sri Lanka but this can’t take anything away from what the team has achieved this week.
And boy did they work for it? After a dismal showing with the bat in the First Test, the first innings here was crying out for the batsmen to show some fight and backbone against this strong South African pace attack. Thilan Samaraweera provided this with a brilliant hundred, silencing his doubters again and proving how important he is to the test side. He was ably supported by a positive fifty from the impressive debutant Dinesh Chandimal, who would go on to score another half-century in the second innings, to accompany a tidy performance with the gloves. Should he continue with this form, the selectors will face a happy dilemma when Prasanna Jayawardene returns to fitness over the wicket-keeping spot. A first innings score of 338 didn’t seem huge on a reasonable wicket, but was made to look daunting after South Africa were shot out for 168 by Chanaka Welegedera and Rangana Herath and, to some extent, by themselves. Welegedera, considerably improved from his poor showing at Centurion (after which I suggested his dropping from the side), bowled consistently and used his left arm angle to cause problems for South Africa. Herath exploited the available spin and bounce in the wicket and tied the batsmen down with accuracy.
The game was far from over when Sri Lanka began their first innings on the second evening and, having lost Dilshan, the players returned the next morning to find overcast conditions ideal for swing bowling, and world class bowlers Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel with their tails up, sensing their opportunity to rip through the Sri Lankan batting again to bring their side back into contention. Kumar Sangakkara and Samaraweera weathered the storm with excellent skill, focus and determination. This was test cricket at its toughest and Sri Lanka showed they belonged. After lunch, batting became easier and Sri Lanka moved slowly, yet confidently, into a position of strength. It would be wrong of me to not mention Sangakkara’s fortune at surviving a dropped catch on 3. The important thing is what Sanga did to capitalize. 105 runs off his bat later, Sri Lanka were in control.
The eventual lead was 449. A world record chase required for South Africa to win. Unlikely, but my no means impossible against an inexperienced bowling attack now devoid of the services of Muttiah Muralitharan. The pitch was offering some turn and bounce but was by no means a minefield to bat on. A Sri Lankan victory would require discipline and patience. The team didn’t disappoint, bowling out South Africa with a whole day to spare. As in the first innings, they were aided by one or two South African errors, including a crucial run-out of the well set Hashim Amla, but the control and pressure exerted by the inexperienced attack, particularly by Herath, was very commendable.
So what next in Cape Town, and in 2012 for Sri Lankan Cricket? Let’s keep things in perspective. One test match doesn’t make a side, and many of the issues I highlighted in my last post still remain. I wouldn’t be surprised if South African pleas with the Newlands groundsman to prepare a pitch more conducive to their fast bowlers for the Third Test are answered to make things difficult for Sri Lanka. But there’s no doubt the team will have gained immeasurable self-belief from this victory, and as Russel Arnold said jokingly on commentary, “Dreams are free”.