17th March 1996 in Lahore. 6th April 2014 in Mirpur. And now, 20-24th June 2014 in Leeds. Yesterday’s heart-stopping victory was undoubtedly Sri Lanka’s biggest moment in its Test history, and deserves a place alongside our two limited overs world cup titles.
Sri Lanka are not famed for their success in the longest and oldest form of the game, especially in unfamiliar conditions. If you exclude Zimbabwe, they had only won six test matches outside of Asia in their entire history before this week. Yet despite this unflattering record, they leave these shores with an elusive test series victory against England. The hosts had of course been pummelled by Australia over the winter, but still possessed enough seasoned veterans and exciting new talents to be strong favourites. Sri Lanka actually nicking this series was beyond the wildest dreams of most of their fans.
Yet nick it they did after two pulsating test matches that surely prove the supremacy of this format over the limited overs game. At Lords, hundreds from Sangakkara and skipper Mathews gave them a chance to hold on, and despite a late wobble, the floppy-haired and floppy-eared Nuwan Pradeep somehow managed to keep out the last five balls for the draw, with a bit of help from DRS. And at Headingley, the game went deep into the very last over again, as a Shaminda Eranga brute finally dislodged the stoic Jimmy Anderson. Cue the most delirious celebrations that Yorkshire has ever seen.
Now that we have had a second to breathe, we can reflect on a Test series (and indeed tour) that was a stunning success for Sri Lanka. As mentioned above, to win a series in England is quite simply the nation’s greatest achievement in this format. Perhaps most pleasing is the fact that Sri Lanka won the big moments in times of adversity. England may look back and think they should have won both tests, as they had great chances to shut the door on the Lankans. But Angelo Mathews has instilled a bloody-minded toughness into this team that our original street-fighter, Arjuna Ranatunga, would be proud of. The tour has been laced with controversy, from Senanayake’s action to the infamous Mankad incident. Mathews and his men have been harangued by English players, fans and journalists alike. But the Lions showed real mettle, and seemed to perform better on the wave of this siege mentality. Credit to coach Atapattu and captain Mathews for pulling this rabbit out of the hat.
Mathews is surely the headline positive for Sri Lanka in this tour. Aside from his playing performances, he has stuck up for his men and led from the front in what will hopefully be his defining summer. He could still improve tactically though, and let’s hope we will imbibe some of Mahela’s precocious acumen before the latter retires. In terms of his batting, the skipper, now ranked 11th in the world, proved he can be a world-beater in Tests. When he came to the crease in the 2nd innings at Headingley, Sri Lanka were on life-support. When he left it the next day, Sri Lanka were immortal. His 160 was one of the best Test innings of recent times. And that’s not even mentioning his pair of contrasting yet equally invaluable knocks at Lords, or his four wicket haul on Saturday and Sunday. A sensational series, Skip.
There are a number of other positives for Sri Lanka to dwell on. Kumar Sangakkara passed 50 in every innings to improve an already stellar CV. He now has his name on the Lords honours board and an impressive record in England to boot. Hopefully success here will bring Sanga the plaudits he has long deserved. His record as a specialist batsman is second only to Don Bradman in the history of the game. He is pure class, and truly deserves to dine at the same table as the other modern greats. To quote Cricinfo, he is now undoubtedly on the level of Ponting, Tendulkar, Lara and Kallis. Anyone who argues otherwise is not paying attention.
The other major boon, in my opinion, was the performance of Sri Lanka’s seamers. They had their tough times, especially during the first innings at Lords, but bounced back to bowl some spells of frankly absurd quality. Eranga and Prasad, in the second innings at Lords and Headingley respectively, were utterly unplayable. This is an unprecedented phenomenon for Sri Lanka. Long has the nation wanted for penetrative seamers who offered movement at some pace. Eranga, whose sheer heart claimed the win yesterday with one ball spare, looks like the man to build an attack around. Prasad and Nuwan Pradeep are clearly dangerous when on song, and we still have the vastly improved Suranga Lakmal to return from injury. This is still not exactly a world-class pack, but is nonetheless collectively the most promising attack we have ever had. If you want to win Tests, bowlers are far more important than batsmen, and if this crop can continue to improve, it can only mean good things.
Before we all get carried away, there were some more sobering aspects to the series. Thirimanne’s 4 runs from 4 innings was nothing short of a disaster, and conclusive proof that superfan Percy Uncle’s views on cricket are misguided (‘One run a day, keeps the doctor away!’). Despite this horror show of a series, Thirimanne still seems the most solid middle-order prospect we have to eventually replace Sanga and Mahela, and deserves an extended run to validate such optimism. He should find a summer of Tests on the familiar pitches of Sri Lanka more to his taste. Opener Karunaratne also had a middling tour. While he rarely gets out immediately, he has the most frustrating habit of slashing his way to 30 or 40 without going on to make a big score. He will need to buck this trend if he wants to stay in the team.
Overall though, it was a series and tour of immense achievement and promise against a regenerating but still dangerous England team. The hosts showed through an astounding fightback on the last day that they too can offer so much more, and we can rightly expect another cracking and feisty series when the two teams meet next.