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They saved the Lord’s Test with one wicket in hand. Then they fought back at Headingley. Then they won the series. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at Angelo Mathews’ gang who emerged triumphant in one of the greatest Test series of all time.
Sri Lankans have, as Arunabha Sengupta has mentioned, been treated harshly by the English: they have played only 13 Tests before the recently concluded series in England in a period spanning 32 years, including a mere five in the first 22. They had won two Tests, in 1998 and 2006, but they were decided by Muttiah Muralitharan, who claimed 27 wickets from the two Tests.
This was different. There was no Murali this time; neither were there the ruthless Sanath Jayasuriya or the durable Marvan Atapattu; even the persevering Chaminda Vaas and the belligerent Tillakaratne Dilshan were gone. Sri Lanka, led by a young captain, had their hopes rested on their two legends — Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene — and a raw fast bowling attack that supported the wiles of Rangana Herath. That was all.
They had seen Joe Root score a double-hundred at Lord’s: Sangakkara and Angelo Mathews scored hundreds; and though they made quick inroads, Gary Ballance scored a hundred to put England to safety. The ton came as a blessing in disguise, as Alastair Cook declared late, and Nuwan Pradeep had to keep the last five balls out to save the Test.
They had managed to keep out England: Mathews’ men had refused to accept defeat against a bunch of famished lions; even their number eleven had risen to the task. They had avoided humiliation in the hands of the country that had treated them with disdain over the years. It wasn’t exactly payback for all the years, but it was certainly a step forward.
Thus saved, they moved on to Headingley, where Stuart Broad’s hat-trick restricted them to 257, and a solid hundred from Sam Robson got them a 108-run lead. Kaushal Silva did not score a lot of runs in response, but he, along with Dimuth Karunaratne, did what was expected of them: see off the new ball.
Sangakkara and Jayawardene, icons of Sri Lankan cricket, the best of friends and both standing on 11,493 Test runs after the Headingley Test, scored crucial fifties, but a sudden burst from Liam Plunkett left the Lankans reeling at 277 for seven. It was then that Mathews and Herath added 149 and saw Sri Lanka to safety. England were left to score 350 in close to four sessions.
Mathews did not show enough faith in Dhammika Prasad, introducing him — perhaps somewhat reluctantly — as the fifth bowler. It took him four balls to take out Cook and Ballance; there were bouncers, in-swings, out-swings, close calls, Billy Bowden, the hooked finger, and reviews: amidst all this he removed Robson and Ian Bell, and with Herath removing Plunkett to end Day Four, all England could hope for was to cling on to a draw.
The enemy had been pushed to the wall. All they needed were five blows. That would nail them to the ground. The pitch was still playing well, but with Dhammika among wickets and Herath getting five wickets, 32 years of poor treatment could be avenged.
Root and Moeen
England were still not done, though: they had a supreme talent in Root, who refused to get out, holding fort amidst rains. They saw out the truncated first session before Pradeep came back, removing Root; Matt Prior did not get the best of decisions (Prasad had probably overstepped), but it was a dismissal nevertheless, and England looked up to Moeen and Chris Jordan to save the Test.
The moved on to tea, but with thirty overs left Herath trapped Jordan leg-before. Eight overs later he also snared Broad, which brought James Anderson to the crease. Then the Englishmen decided to hold up, and how!
The last hour; or what seemed like the last year
Block by block they rebuilt their innings, Moeen and Anderson. While Moeen inched towards a maiden hundred — few hundreds have been as deserving — Anderson kept out Herath and co. with a single-minded intent of providing a dead bat. He stretched his leg, let the ball hit the bat, swayed off the occasional bouncer, and left balls alone.
As the shadows lengthened across Headingley, the Lankan shoulders started to drop one by one. A desperate Mathews shuffled his bowlers around, turning to even Mahela for help. Nothing, absolutely nothing seemed to work. The unselfish Moeen did not reach out for his hundred and played every ball on its merit as England seemed to have salvaged a draw.
As the overs went on, Anderson grew in confidence. He was certainly not a pushover when it came to keeping out balls, and once again he rose to the task. He shut out Herath’s angle, forcing him to bowl faster to induce a leg-before; Herath, lynchpin of the Sri Lankan attack since Murali’s retirement, tried out his entire repertoire, but nothing seemed to work.
Moeen eventually reached his hundred with boundary off his pads; but there was still a lot of work to be done. As the number of overs remaining was ticked by scorers and fans alike, Mathews’ head almost drooped in discontent: so near, yet so far. They had won the T20Is and ODIs, but would perhaps have to leave the British shores with a drawn Test series. That would be honourable, but his gang was hungry enough to crave for more than that.
He refused to give up, and continued rotating his bowlers, getting Herath to change ends, bringing his seamers on from either end, and so on. Then, with a single over left, he played a masterstroke: instead of giving Herath the final over, he brought back Shaminda Eranga, the man who could exploit Anderson’s weakness against short-pitched bowling.
The first ball missed Anderson’s Adam’s apple by a whisker; the next two angled across him; the fourth ball was over-pitched, and Anderson kept it out. The hawks came closer and closer, waiting for the batsman trying to fend off a lethal bouncer; will it happen?
The fifth ball was a vicious bouncer; Anderson somehow managed to save his face from being smashed, but the resultant catch ballooned in the air to the hands of a waiting Herath. The Lankans celebrated, though none more than the two veterans, now in the twilight of their illustrious careers.
The attack — the one that claimed twenty wickets at Headingley to clinch a series — was ridiculed as a “glorified county attack” by the British media. They were not considered worthy by the English to give them a full series in the second half of a summer.
Their hopes have been kept alive, by Sidath Wettimuny and Duleep Mendis, by Aravinda de Silva and Arjuna Ranatunga, by Jayasuriya and Atapattu, by Muralitharan and Vaas, by Sangakkara and Jayawardene; they had all waited for this moment.
Spare a thought for the players: they have been treated like dirt by their own board; there have been issues over contracts, and Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) has still not relented. SLC had even threatened to send a second-string team to the ICC World T20 in Bangladesh; in the end the first team visited and duly lifted the Trophy.
They keep on playing for professional pride; and for their nation; and for their fans. The mantle had been passed on to Sanga and Mahela several years back; as they approach the conclusion of their careers (that boast of over 40,000 international runs between them), they would certainly feel relieved of the fact that the team is now in good hands: Sri Lanka has won every single tournament or bilateral series across formats in 2014.
Despite the Asia Cup or the ICC World T20 2014 triumphs, the series win in England has perhaps been the sweetest. Not only has it involved the purest form of the sport, but it has also shown that despite the adversities at home and the relentless pressure in the series, the Sri Lankans have come back with a vengeance.
Mathews’ men have finally arrived. They’re here to stay. And perhaps rule.
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