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When Sri Lanka arrived for their two-Test series in South Africa, it had been just a week since they’d been mauled in Australia. At the dreaded ‘Gabbatoir’ in Brisbane, they were rolled over inside three days by an innings and 40 runs. It was hardly any better in Canberra, where they lost by 366 runs in four days. The highest total among their four innings was 215, with their batsmen having just two fifties to show. The bowlers had lacked zing, and save for Suranga Lakmal, were cannon fodder for the hosts.
The Warne-Muralitharan Trophy, which Sri Lanka had won with a memorable 3-0 clean sweep at home in 2016, was surrendered in the blink of an eye. For long, this had, by and large, been the story of Sri Lanka in Test cricket — lions at home, lambs abroad. However, two demoralising defeats on their own turf dealt a serious blow to their otherwise robust home record, with India and England whitewashing the islanders in August 2017 and November 2018 respectively.
In between these two drubbings, Sri Lanka managed to slay Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh away and South Africa at home, besides drawing a hard-fought series in the West Indies. But the decline seems to have been well in place; despite the presence of unquestionable talent, the failure to string together consistent performances vindicated the pundits who had prophesied the team’s long-term consignment to the lower tier of Test nations.
Sri Lanka’s constant reshuffling of captaincy over the past few months, coupled with their prolonged ODI agony (they have not won a bilateral series against a full-member side since 2015-16) further strengthened the widely-held notion that it would take some doing to restore the 1996 ODI World Cup champions’ reputation as an international force to reckon with. Injuries and selection controversies only added to the turbulence in the build-up to the tour of South Africa.
Dinesh Chandimal was not only relieved of captaincy but dropped from the squad altogether owing to a poor run of scores. Opener Dimuth Karunaratne was given the reins in his stead, and thus became Sri Lanka’s eighth new captain across formats in the last two years. The squad had four uncapped players, and though Lakmal returned after missing the Canberra Test, batting mainstay Angelo Mathews was yet to recover from an injury sustained in late December.
Moreover, despite Lakmal’s availability, the pace resources looked severely depleted, what with injuries to at least three bowlers who would have been certainties. On the eve of the series, both Karunaratne and coach Chandika Hathurusingha had not stated anything that even remotely hinted that Sri Lanka were actually looking to win a Test. By contrast, the Proteas were coming off a 3-0 rout of Pakistan. If ever there was a recipe for a mismatch, this was it. Or so it seemed.
It was amid this chaotic atmosphere that Sri Lanka commenced the third and final installment of their southern-hemisphere sojourn — prior to the series in Australia, they had also been beaten 1-0 in a two-Test series in New Zealand. If history was to provide any relief, Kingsmead in Durban made for a suitable venue to start off with, for it was here that Sri Lanka had recorded their only previous Test match win on South African soil — an against-the-odds 208-run victory in 2010-11.
South Africa’s much-vaunted pace attack, comprised by Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander and Duanne Olivier, was expected to run riot in home conditions, though the same could not be guaranteed about their batsmen, who had often collectively disappointed in the recent past. In Sri Lanka last July, the South African line-up had repeatedly caved in to spin. But in their own backyard, they had an opportunity to cash in against what was a raw bowling unit.
Instead, it was Sri Lanka’s unassuming pace trio that drew first blood at Kingsmead. Left-armer Vishwa Fernando, playing his fourth Test, had Dean Elgar caught behind off the fourth ball of the match. At the other end, Lakmal got rid of Hashim Amla, soon after which Vishwa added another scalp in the form of Aiden Markram. South Africa were reduced to 14/3, and that they could reach a competitive 235 was only thanks to a counterattacking 80 from Quinton de Kock.
On the first day itself, Sri Lanka had shown that they had the spark, on the back of a promising display from their seamers, notably Vishwa (4/62) and Kasun Rajitha (3/68). Not surprisingly, South Africa took a lead of 44 and ended up setting a stiff target of 304. Debutant left-arm spinner Lasith Embuldeniya recorded figures of 5/66 in the second innings, while Vishwa (4/71) impressed once again. Vishwa would go on to play a larger role the following day with the bat.
Sri Lanka resumed the fourth day at 83/3, with Oshada Fernando, another debutant, and Kusal Perera the batsmen in the middle. The score soon slipped to 110/5, and the onus of rescuing Sri Lanka suddenly fell on the shoulders of the left-handed Perera. Mathurage Don Kusal Janith Perera had done little of note in a stop-start 14-Test career, and a solitary century against Zimbabwe notwithstanding, was better known for his hitting exploits in the limited-overs game. Perera, who had top-scored in the first innings with a spunky 51, evidently saw little value in dropping anchor and proceeded, instead, to treat the likes of Steyn and Rabada with disdain. The sixth-wicket partnership had blossomed to 96 when the left-arm spin of Keshav Maharaj threw a spanner in the works at a critical juncture, trapping Dhananjaya de Silva on 48 and triggering a collapse that threatened to put Sri Lanka on the brink.
The procession continued even as Perera watched from one end, increasingly aware that it was becoming a mountain too high for Sri Lanka. Out walked last man Vishwa, with Sri Lanka still 78 away from victory. Perera, who was on 86 at this point, raised his game to another plane altogether from thereon. He hurried to his hundred, and expertly farmed the strike to keep the scoreboard ticking, while Vishwa showcased exemplary survival skills whenever he was in the firing line.
As Perera charged on, South African shoulders began to droop. With every run, the game increasingly resembled a famous chase, from two decades ago, that was anchored by one of the game’s greatest batsmen. Back in March 1999, the imperious Brian Lara had pulled the West Indies out from the depths of 105/5 and steered them to a remarkable one-wicket win with a sparkling 153* against Australia at Bridgetown. Was Perera about to achieve the unthinkable?
The record for the highest tenth-wicket partnership in Tests fell by the wayside when the stand crossed 57, which was the mark set by Pakistan’s Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mushtaq Ahmed against Australia at Karachi in 1994-95. With Sri Lanka now needing only 20, cricketing immortality beckoned Perera. His fifth six, off Steyn, reduced the target to seven. Five balls later, he hit Rabada for four across the third-man boundary to pull off arguably the most incredible Test chase.
As fate would have it, Perera ended with exactly 153* to his name — a genuine contender for the best Test innings ever, considering the circumstances surrounding it, and given the fact that it came against some of the world’s best bowlers away from home. Though Vishwa’s contribution in the stand of 78* was only six runs, it was worth its weight in gold. Sri Lanka entered the second Test at St. George’s Park in Port Elizabeth knowing even a draw would give them unprecedented glory.
A buoyed Vishwa disturbed the woodwork of Elgar and Amla by producing two gems in succession, but when Sri Lanka ceded a lead of 68 on the tricky surface, it seemed that South Africa’s streak of undefeated home series, stretching back to 2016, would be extended to eight. However, Lakmal (4/39), hitherto overshadowed by Vishwa and Rajitha, was instrumental in reducing the hosts to just 128 in the second innings. The dream was fast becoming a reality.
Oshada (75*) and Kusal Mendis (84*) rose to the occasion, proving that Sri Lanka’s triumph at Durban was no flash in the pan with a breathtaking partnership of 163* that completed a series-clinching eight-wicket win. Not once in 21 previous attempts had a subcontinental side prevailed in a Test series in South Africa. By storming what was until now an impregnable bastion for Asian teams, the lionhearted Sri Lankans had metamorphosed from no-hopers to conquerors.