A Grinding yet Pulsating Victory for Sri Lanka at Pallekele

Andrew Fidel Fernando, in ESPNcricinfo, where the title is “Sri Lanka’s old commune with the new”

All through the Test there has been near-silence. Only sometime after lunch, does the sound of papare spring from the stands. It is unclear where the band is seated at first. With the home team on the hunt, is the stadium summoning music from its muscle memory? Is the papare‘s sudden eruption part of a five-day ambush for Australia? Whatever the case, it feels like the final wickets cannot fall unless the sound of a trumpet fills the air, but also, that they will fall, because it does.

Around the bat, fielders are yakking. It is a team of Kusal Mendises and Dhananjaya de Silvas, but at times, it can feel like Duleep and Aravinda are there. In progress around the batsman is a Sri Lankan ritual as old as time. These men yak just like the legends. They leap, and gesticulate and spasm in appeal. Most have not played a game where the stakes are this high. But the way they ring the bat, it is as if on their first day of school, they had been handed a helmet and shin pads, and taken crouching positions around the class teacher.

Shuffling forward to bowl is the only man in this XI to have tasted series victory over Australia, 17 years ago. There is always the temptation to cast Rangana Herath as the cricket world’s least likely hero: he is the banker, the old man, the chubster, the underdog. But while his young team-mates are raising old ghosts like puffs of Pallekele dust, perhaps it is past time a little newness is accorded to Herath. Three-hundred-and-thirteen wickets in, maybe he deserves to be reimagined.

Sure, he has an ample belly, but as he completes a 24th five-wicket haul, it no longer seems an impediment to be overcome but a vast personal store of cricketing fortitude. Since late 2011, he has spun Sri Lanka to victory over South Africa, Pakistan, England, New Zealand, Bangladesh, India, West Indies and now ex-nemesis Australia. In some of these matches, victories came easy. In the majority, Herath has had to massage wins out of the clay, or the air.

With the bat, when he was he slap-pulling Mitchell Starc and reverse-paddling Nathan Lyon, to extend Sri Lanka’s lead, it was easy to see him as a little man with a lot of courage. Still, in a purely spatial sense, that’s to be expected isn’t it? Which current cricketer could possibly have more guts?

And yes, he has the roundest face in the sport, but maybe for him that just builds solidarity with the cricket ball. Which bowler in the world is better-placed to perceive the ball’s moods, its fancies, its many leathery subtleties? When Adam Voges drove the ball back at him in the morning session, of course Herath was the only man aware that this may be a catch, and not a bump ball. Such are the fruits of a long-term relationship.

Taking wickets at the other end is Sri Lanka’s freshest practitioner of its ancient dark art. “Mystery spinner” said headlines on Lakshan Sandakan in the Australian press. When he bowled to Steven Smith, who averages 87 this year, 74 in the last, and 82 in the one before that, Smith visibly congratulated himself on the occasions he correctly picked the direction of the turn. If Herath is mostly torso, Sandakan is all limbs, flailing wildly as he launches an appeal. He may be the first ever left-arm wristspinner to play for Sri Lanka, but with the wicked dismissal of Joe Burns on day four, he has already bowled a Sri Lankan classic.

On day five, Sandakan’s stock deliveries invoke memories of that most famous Sri Lankan spinner – the one who had worked with the other team. As he bowls to Steve O’Keefe and Peter Nevill, who are basically carcasses with bats, some balls don’t just seem to rip back off the adjacent pitch, but seem to be pouncing out of a neighbouring spatial dimension. In the end, a gentler delivery was required to break the stand. The other debutant, de Silva, had Nevill cutting at one that slid on to take his edge.

The year has been unkind to Angelo Mathews, who is yet to reach 30 himself, but already has a weathered look about him as captain. If he can smile for a few days, it is because the youngest man in his XI, the oldest man in the series, and the freshest member of the squad, colluded to topple the world’s best team. In this Test for Sri Lanka, the old communed with the new. The aged found regeneration, and the young reached back to what has come before.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando


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