FOR the first time since Muttiah Muralidaran retired, Sri Lanka has finally won a Test. It did it convincingly, by more than 200 runs, and in a country where it had never won in the long format before. There’s life for Sri Lanka after the great man Murali. Thursday’s 208-run win was not just a breakthrough in South Africa, it was a turning point for Sri Lankan cricket after 18 months of misery. For 15 matches Sri Lanka foundered in Tests, going winless since record-breaking bowler Muralidaran said farewell to the five-day game with a 67th five-for haul in a 10-wicket victory over India in July last year.
This year, poor form on the pitch was exaggerated by problems off it as players went nine months without salaries — after reaching the World Cup final — when the national board hit financial difficulties. The squad arrived in South Africa dispirited after three straight series defeats, still unpaid and was written off. An innings defeat in the first Test against the Proteas seemed to underline Sri Lanka’s “no-hoper” status with everyone expecting a whitewash and a fourth defeat in its fourth series in South Africa. No wonder delighted captain Tillakaratne Dilshan greeted the series-levelling win at Kingsmead — and his first success as skipper — as a pivotal moment.
“One of the greatest days in my career,” Dilshan said of the pressure-releasing win. The Sri Lankans found their fight and rebuilt their team spirit in the week leading up to the second Test in Durban, opting for a series of team outings instead of training every day.
Throughout, the payment issue was not on their minds, they said. All they could do was concentrate on cricket. “We can’t control that stuff. We can control the cricket,” left-arm spinner and man-of-the-match winner Rangana Herath said.
Herath, whose joy was as unconcealed as Dilshan’s after the Durban game, had a personal breakthrough. His 5-79 in the second innings and nine wickets in the match eventually carried Sri Lanka to victory and gave it a spinner to turn to after leading Test wicket-taker Muralidaran. But Sri Lanka also won with contributions from old and young as a new team took shape.
Experienced batsmen Thilan Samaraweera and Kumar Sangakkara hit centuries, debutant wicketkeeper Dinesh Chandimal had half-centuries in both innings of his first Test and Herath and left-arm seamer Chanaka Welegedara grabbed five-wicket hauls.
Heading to Cape Town and the third Test, the Sri Lankans feel the momentum is now with them and a first series win in South Africa, straight after a first Test win, is achievable. It would be one of cricket’s biggest turnarounds.