Sri Lankan captain Dinesh Chandimal was over the moon following the 2-0 win over Pakistan in the two-Test series. "We are over the moon. This is a team performance. They put their heart and soul in the practice sessions. Thanks to the selectors again for giving us the confidence. It was a tough series against India but we learnt a lot from it. The boys executed the game plan really well in this series. If you look at the guys, they're really committed. Their attitude and discipline are there and that brings the spirit too," he said.
The Sri Lankans thus became the first team to defeat Pakistan in their adopted home of UAE. And in doing so, they also leapfrogged the "hosts" in the ICC Test rankings.
It was only two months ago that they were being thrashed left, right and centre at home by a well-bred Indian outfit. They lost nine matches across formats and dipped to the lowest of lows. Before the thrashing handed out by India came a disastrous home season against minnows Zimbabwe, where the islanders lost the ODIs and just barely scraped through to a record chase in the Tests.
By the time they reached UAE to take on Pakistan, nobody expected anything from the Lankans. Given what a formidable force Pakistan have been in their desert home and the ease with which they have brushed aside quality opposition in the last few years, it was expected to be another dry, boring, one-sided Test series.
All of that changed in the course of two weeks, with Sri Lanka stunning Pakistan twice to register their first away series win since 2014. In hindsight, the result admittedly had more to do with Pakistan's unpredictability than Sri Lanka's renaissance. "Transformation" has been the keyword in Sri Lankan cricket over the last few years. They have an entirely new set of players and it hasn't been easy, but they are battling hard. If Chandimal calls the result "over the moon", he is probably right.
Both Tests were absolute edge-of-the-seat thrillers, the kinds the ICC would point to as evidence to highlight the need to retain Test cricket in its original form. But probe a little deeper and you'd realise the two teams competed poorly. If anything, Pakistan actually managed to clinch the bigger moments and stole the limelight more often during the Test series.
Sri Lanka's scores in the four innings read 419, 138, 482 and 96. That they managed two Test victories with two totals below 150 tells you more about how Pakistan fared in the series than about Sri Lanka's improvement. In fact, Sri Lanka became the first team in 115 years to win a Test after failing to cross 100 in the third innings.
Three Sri Lankan batsmen — Dimuth Karunaratne, Dinesh Chandimal and Niroshan Dickwella — averaged in excess of 65 in the series and performed admirably. But the next highest run-getter is Dilruwan Perera, who got just 97 runs in four innings. Kaushal Silva, Kusal Mendis, Lahiru Thirimanne or Sadeera Samarawickrama all failed to make an impression, with the Sri Lankans' 400-plus totals in the first innings of the two Tests coming mainly from Karunaratne, Chandimal and Dickwella.
This is Sri Lanka's biggest problem: Karunaratne, Chandimal and Dickwella have been their most consistent batsmen for the last two years. But when these three fail, and with Angelo Mathews often out injured, they don't have anybody else to pick up the pieces. Kusal Mendis was thought to be that man who could shore up their problems but the young batsman has often thrown away his wicket carelessly, and is far too inconsistent to be handed more responsibility.
On the bowling front, they were far more impressive. While Rangana Herath and Dilruwan Perera did an admirable job as spin partners, it was the performance of their seamers — Suranga Lakmal, Nuwan Pradeep and Lahiru Gamage — that was heart-warming. The trio outbowled their Pakistan counterparts, which is no mean achievement. But then, Pakistan don't boast of a very settled batting line-up, especially following the retirements of Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq. So Sri Lanka's bowlers' exemplary showing must be seen through the prism of the inexperience in Pakistan's batting.
So while Sri Lanka are certainly justified in celebrating their achievement, there is a lot of work still to be done. This victory only masks the many problems the islanders were suffering from, which had already cost them dear against India. If they seek a return to the heady days of the 90s, the Lankans need to go back to their dens and work on these flaws. If they fail to address these issues, this victory over Pakistan will serve little purpose other than boost their standing on the ICC rankings table.