Two things are clear from the recently-concluded Test series between Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka. One, Zimbabwe isn't a minnow and deserve more tours. Two, Sri Lanka at home are one heck of a fighting unit that can never be counted out in a contest.
Three seasons in a row Sri Lanka have managed to win a Test match when they seemed completely out of it. The Galle match against India in 2015 was perhaps the most dramatic of them all.
Trailing by 192 runs in the second innings and three down for just five on the board on the morning of day 3, India were ready to steamroll the Lankans. Ravichandran Ashwin was sending down variations from hell. Amit Mishra looked a handful and the most experienced campaigner of them all, Harbhajan Singh was hardly even needed.
Sri Lanka’s captain, Angelo Mathews was known for playing a few match winning rearguards of his known. Perhaps it was his influence that his team somehow managed to find some belief. Firstly, it was Chandimal who threw caution and a half to the wind and played a scarcely believable knock of 162 not out off 169 balls.
Part two of the Houdini act was scripted by the ever-reliable Rangana Herath. In the last few years, the left-arm spinner has answered the call every time his team needed a bowler to step up. The sniff of victory provided by Chandimal’s knock was all he needed to step up his game and bowl his team to a famous victory taking seven wickets in the process and bundling India out for 112.
If the game at Galle in 2015 marked the arrival of Chandimal, the Pallekele Test in 2016 against Australia saw the arrival of another supremely talented batsman in Kusal Mendis. Against a well oiled Australian unit, Sri Lanka was facing an uphill task by conceding a first innings lead and losing their top four with just 86 on the board.
Sri Lanka was now in the post-Sangakkara-Jayawardena era. Just the presence of those two talismans in the dressing instilled belief in them, now it seemed Sri Lanka’s enviable home record was going to take a beating while they rebuild. “Little” Kusal Mendis, as Tony Greig would have called him if he was still around, had other ideas.
Mendis had managed to score just one half century in the seven Tests he had played before this. Now, on a pitch that was wreaking havoc from day one, he compiled a masterful 176. To put his innings in perspective, there was only one other fifty-plus score in the whole Test match, 55 by Steve Smith. To say that Mendis was batting on another plane will be an understatement. Chandimal’s innings the previous year was cavalier, Mendis was measured, calm and in complete control.
The final act of the Sri Lankan comeback was on expected lines. Final innings, turning pitch, you know the drill. Herath shut Australians out with another five-wicket haul. He was ably assisted by Lakshan Sandakan, the rookie chinaman bowler who took three.
It’s the year 2017 now and Sri Lankan cricket is going through turmoil. They have lost the one-day series at home against Zimbabwe and fans, media and a cricket board that is highly influenced by political power is calling for heads to roll. Zimbabwe knew this is perhaps their best chance of getting an overseas Test win and make a stronger case for getting more exposure at the international level.
Zimbabwe scored a handsome 356 in the first innings, despite another five wicket haul from Herath, who was again left to do it all on his own. After Brendan Taylor, Craig Ervine is probably the most accomplished batsman to come out of Zimbabwe in the last decade. Ervine made a career best 160 and ensured Zimbabwe took the early lead in the game. Sri Lanka, in fact, would end up playing catch up for all five days.
The Island nation responded with a strong 346. None of their batsmen could kick on after getting starts and knowing they will have to bat last on this pitch, Zimbabwe knew that another decent batting display may seal the match for them.
In the second innings, it was Sikandar Raza’s turn to score a career best 127 after Herath had scuttled out the top order for next to nothing. The tail wagged furiously to assist Raza and managed to set Sri Lanka 388 to chase. If Sri Lanka managed to win this, it will be the highest ever fourth inning chase in Sri Lanka and the fifth highest of all time.
With half their side back for 203, Sri Lanka needed another unlikely hero to step up just like they did in 2016 and 2015. This time they had two. Niroshan Dickwella and Asela Gunaratne knew that Zimbabwe, despite fighting like champions, will struggle to last five days. They continued to tire them out with a carefully compiled partnership that eventually ensured another famous victory.
The next opponent is India. Sri Lanka can’t afford any freebies now. Virat Kohli’s team has a point or two to prove after the recent captain-coach fiasco and you can expect them to be even more ruthless than they usually are. In a fresh season of Test cricket, Kohli would do anything to make sure his team keeps the world number one ranking. He would trust his men to do the job for him against the Islanders, but he will be the first one to remind everyone of that lesson he learned early on his career as a Test captain. The Galle Test. The plucky Sri Lankans.