In the first innings of the first Test match at Galle between Sri Lanka and a visiting Indian team – led by Virat Kohli in his first series as “permanent” Test captain – R. Ashwin took six wickets to blow the hosts away for 183. To hammer the nail into the coffin properly, India scored 375 with another Virat century- a lead of 172 runs within the first two days. There was no way Sri Lanka would, even in legend Kumar Sangakkara’s penultimate game, make any sort of comeback. Dinesh Chandimal then scored 162 alone in the second innings, helping his team chalk up a respectable 367. However, a target of 176 couldn’t be very challenging for the Indians, given the way they had batted earlier. But we all know what Rangana Herath can do after the third day on turning wickets in Test cricket. And he did. 7 wickets, and India were blown away for 112. Sri Lanka won a match they had no business to in the first Test of a transitional series.
Exactly a year later, after losing everything possible including their dignity in the last 12 months, an Angelo Mathews-led Sri Lankan team is in the same favorable position, and most unexpectedly, against the run of form and play. They went on to lose 1-2 to India, but are now 1-0 up against World no. 1 ranked Australia. They have won a Test in Pallekelle that they had no business to win, especially after being shot out for 117 on the first day. “This Lankan team is back to being minnows,” texted a friend after yet another disheartening collapse. Four days later, after an equally miraculous innings as Chandimal’s (this time, youngster Kusal Mendis with 176) in the third innings, and yet another Herath 5-for in the fourth innings on the last day, the hosts find themselves in an unusual position. They are leading a series they had no expectations from. They have won a Test match. And for once, nobody is retiring. Everyone is inspired. They are true underdogs, after being demolished in England in every format.
It’s true that Australia roll up and die on Asian pitches, but their record in Sri Lanka has been simply awesome.
To put things into perspective, this was only their SECOND EVER loss to Sri Lanka in Test matches in 33 years – the first after 1999. This was only Lanka’s second victory over Australia at home in 14 Tests. This is Steven Smith’s first defeat as Test captain. Sri Lanka extended Australia’s recent embarrassing record: This is their seventh consecutive loss in Asia, spanning back to the beginning of 2013, when India began to demolish them aided by Ravindra Jadeja and R. Ashwin. Pakistan destroyed them in UAE after that, and gallingly, it may now be Lanka’s turn – the boost the ex-giants have needed so dearly after a dark recent history. Since the retirement of Muttiah Muralitharan, Mahela Jayawardene and Sangakkara, the team has struggled to blood the next generation under Mathews. This was, however, Herath’s 7th five-wicket haul in the fourth innings of a Test, equaling Muralitharan’s record.
The Test match itself was a near classic, during which the most unusual world record was established. Near the end of Australia’s last innings, in their desperation to save the Test and hope for rain on the final day, injured spinner Steve O’Keefe and Peter Nevill blocked 25.4 overs without scoring a run. 154 balls, no run. Their partnership was a most valuable 4 off 178 balls. They showed the application that their top order sorely lacked – especially the in-form Steven Smith, who doesn’t seem to understand that one can’t play spinners the same way in every country despite having good footwork. Herath got him in both innings, and made him look like a fool in the first. It was a huge mistake in hindsight – the sort of mistake that pretty much sums up Australia’s lifelong struggle on sub-continental pitches. No matter how much money their academy seems to have pumped into “tailor-made” pitches back home to improve their performance against spin, they – like traditional rivals England – will never be able to replicate the confidence of being born in such conditions. It’s different to adapt, and very different to naturally be able to read such conditions.
The Adam Voges honeymoon ended too; he averaged 98 before this Test. David Warner scored 1 run on his return from injury.
The second Test will begin at Galle in three days. A few weeks ago, Pakistan had pulled off an upset and defeated favorites England at Lord’s in the first Test of that series. England came back to destroy them in the second at Manchester. One wonders if Lanka are taking notes. And one wonders if Australia ever takes notes.