Angelo Mathews is all set to return home after his injury which makes Dinesh Chandimal the skipper for reminder of South Africa tour    Getty Images
Angelo Mathews is all set to return home after his injury which makes Dinesh Chandimal the skipper for reminder of South Africa tour Getty Images

There was no way South Africa could have won at New Wanderers, certainly not after getting skittled out for 113. In the previous match, a rain-curtailed affair at Centurion, Sri Lanka had scored 107 for 6, falling short of a target of 127 in 10 overs. What was a target of 114 in 20 overs after that?

Running out of options, Angelo Mathews decided to give his side a complete revamp: he summoned Lakshan Sandakan, who had given Australia a tough time in the Test series at home; and Isuru Udana, who had debuted with Angelo Mathews and had played a mere 8 matches in as many years.

Both delivered. Sandakan took a wicket with his first ball in T20I cricket, got another two-in-two, and finished with 4 for 23. Udana took a wicket with his first ball too, and finished with 3 for 13. They caused the wreckage.

But then, bowlers have rarely failed Angelo s men on the tour. It had always been the men with the willow. And things did not seem to get any different here: Lungi Ngidi, the boy who had conjured serious pace at Centurion, was at it again; three balls into the third over Sri Lanka were 15 for 2.

The score read 35 for 3 after 5 overs when Mathews walked out. Ngidi s figures read 3-0-13-3.

Thankfully, the man at the other end was Dinesh Chandimal, bastion for Sri Lanka over the past two years. With 79 to score from 90 balls, the senior men knew there was no reason to panic. The target came down… 76 in 84… 70 in 78… 67 in 72… 65 in 66… 61 in 60… 56 in 54… 47 in 48… 36 in 42… 31 in 36…

Farhaan Behardien knew it was time. He tossed the ball to Ngidi again. The youngster steamed in, The Bullring chanting his name…

Mathews got a single. Chandimal ran two. They were cruising.

Then Ngidi bowled one outside off. And Chandimal, the man who had taken on Australia despite injury, the man who had scored the greatest Test innings of the decade at Galle a year-and-a-half back, tried to hoist it.

He ended up edging it. The spell was broken.

But they needed only 25 from 30. More importantly, Ngidi had bowled out. Imran Tahir had one over up his sleeves.

Asela Gunaratne had scored 158 and 69 against Burgher barely a month ago. He could bat. They played out the next over from Wayne Parnell. 17 from 18.

Behardien decided to show his last card. On came Tahir. There was no point to hold him back anymore.

The fifth ball was a googly. Gunaratne never read it. The umpire sent him back.

21 from 24. Mathews survived a run out next over. Wayne Parnell kept things tight.

17 from 18. The gap was closing down. JJ Smuts, at best a containing bowler, strode in.

The first ball was up there. Seekkuge Prasanna pulled. He gave it all he had. There was nothing wrong with the shot selection, more so because Tahir manned deep square-leg. The ball soared into the air, descending into the stands in an arc…

Tahir never lost sight of the ball. He was not as fit as David Miller, but he knew where the ropes were. He stood as far back as he could without touching them and judged the catch to perfection.

They needed 12 from 12 when Parnell ran in.

Mathews trusted Thikshila de Silva. He got an easy single. Thikshila steered the next ball for a brace. He drove the third, but Behardien at mid-on prevented a run. 9 from 9.

The fourth ball was in the slot. Thikshila did what Mathews certainly would not have: he took on Behardien. The ball lobbed sheepishly into his hands.

On a sunlit afternoon five-and-a-half years back, in the greatest show of all limited-overs cricket, Nuwan Kulasekara had been promoted ahead of Thisara Perera. That day he had smashed a 30-ball 32.

Kulasekara may not be the greatest of batsmen, but he was certainly experienced.

He missed the first ball from Parnell, but responded the moment he heard Mathews call. Mathews sprinted in, stretched himself full-length, skidded across the crease but did not get up immediately. He was clutching his thigh.

The hamstring had given in. He could not run.

But he had to. He could not afford to keep Kulasekara on strike for the last over, certainly not after how his partners have committed hara-kiri.

The next ball hit his thigh-pad. Mathews set off, he hobbled, his body refusing to catch up with his mind.

But there was ample time. They needed 7 from the last over.

Smuts bowled as flat as he could, but Mathews still managed to get some elevation. It was certainly not enough, for the ball dipped, dying down on the diving mid-wicket…

No, the fielder never made the catch. And unsurprisingly, Mathews did not run either.

There was nothing wrong with the next shot that cleared the long-on fence to level the scores, bringing his teammates in the dugout to their feet.

Behardien got his men in. Sri Lanka needed a solitary run from four balls, but the man on strike the man who had got them so close could not run.

Mathews slapped the next ball to mid-on. Under normal circumstances he would have made it, but he knew that he would never make it this time.

He turned down the single. If it had to be done, if Sri Lanka were to win anything on this tour, it will have to be him or no one else.

Smuts made sure that he did not pitch up. If Mathews wanted that big shot, he would have to use his injured leg, fight pain, fight agony…

So he dropped the ball on a length. Mathews left the crease on instinct honed over years of practice of stepping out. His eyes followed the trajectory of the ball as it descended into the crowd, straight, very straight…

What pain?

In an instant Mathews was engulfed in a sea of dark blue. He would not play the next match, not the rest of the series but he had made sure he would not leave South Africa empty-handed.

Even if it had come at the cost of severe pain.