Angelo Mathews admitted to being “short of words” in the post-match presentation ceremony. After all, this was their second international win against a Test-playing nation across formats this calendar year, in 23 attempts. Mathews is captain almost by default, and his fraying nerves were evident in his uncharacteristically indecisive footwork in this Test. Even in victory, when asked about the positives from this game, he rattled off a random assortment from the top of his head, before being reminded by Roshan Abeysinghe that he had forgotten Lakshan Sandakan, one of the surprise wreckers-in-chief of this Australian batting order.
Sandakan’s selection for this Test match was, in microcosm, an indication of the delirium and despair this side was in, just five days ago. Their front line seam attack, comprising Dhammika Prasad, Shaminda Eranga, Dushmantha Chameera and Suranga Lakmal, were all injured or unavailable, meaning they went with one specialist paceman in Nuwan Pradeep. Sandakan was just a last minute shoo-in from the Sri Lanka A squad touring England, considering the spin department’s separate set of troubles, following Jeffrey Vandersay’s injury. And yet, amid all this, the overriding narrative in the build-up to this game, was the SLC’s public spat with Muttiah Muralitharan, about the former’s role as Australia’s spin consultant for this series. Sandakan finished with match figures of 7 for 107, and as Kumar Sangakkara tweeted, it wouldn’t delight anyone more than Muralitharan to see such emerging spinning talent stepping up against a high quality Test side.
Kusal Mendis’ finest hour before this Test match came in a tournament few in Sri Lanka would know about – a fine 156 in the Moin ud Dowla Gold Cup against a Hyderabad XI in September 2015. Like his captain Angelo Mathews, he had also led his nation at an Under 19 World Cup, but that was about as far as similarities went. With that solitary First-Class hundred, and a few sparks of promise in the recent England tour, the odds of him going on the be Man of the Match would have been about as long as Sri Lanka winning this Test.
His chanceless 176, constituting about 50% of the Sri Lanka’s second innings runs, is about as good as they come at this level. Viewed in isolation, the innings belied the context it came in – no nerves, no indication of the dumps the batting order has been in this year, no heed paid to the bowling attack that destroyed the same line-up two days before.
At the end of it all, after walking up to collect his Man of the Match plaque, Mendis was called over to give the customary interview. As happens in such cases, Angelo Mathews, perhaps instinctively, walked with the youngster, should translation from Sinhalese to English be necessary. Mendis stuttered, cobbled together a few incoherent sentences in English with necessary keywords, never once turning to his captain or uttering a word in vernacular. By the end of it, Mathews had disappeared, and the grin on the faces in the dressing room said it all. 21 years old and having threatened possibly the oldest surviving record in all of cricket, coming close at one point to eclipsing Charles Bannerman’s proportion of runs scored to the team total, this former Schoolboy Cricketer of the Year looks set for many more such moments under the sun.
21 years of First Class cricket, 243 matches, 943 wickets. A debut in the series when Sri Lanka won against the Australians for the only time in their Test history, albeit only watching that game from the dressing room. Rangana Herath has orchestrated many wins in his 17 year career, but never won a Test against an Aussie side. This time, down the road from the scene of that ’99 triumph – the Asgiriya Stadium in Kandy – Herath, as always, tireless and patient with his own bag of proven tricks, contributed with both bat and ball, guiding the younger spinners, asking them to “play as they normally do”, and ending up with 9 for 93 and 41 valuable runs.
With the two remaining Tests at Galle and SSC, two venues known to be more spin-friendly than Pallekele, this could well be Herath’s best chance to author his own chapter in Sri Lanka’s Test history, by leading this young side to a series win. Australia have had a forgettable record in Asia, losing all but 1 of their 16 Tests since 2008, and there would be few better chances for the Lankans to begin their own renaissance in this format. The last time, and the only time they won a series, the side had giants like Aravinda de Silva, Sanath Jayasuriya, Chaminda Vaas and of course, Muttiah Muralitharan. This win is an achievement that would have made each one of them proud.