The football sage Jonathan Wilson once famously, if apocryphally, remarked to some consternation and merriment that “goals are overrated”. You could adapt his comment probably to some consternation and merriment to Test cricket by saying the same thing about the result. There are, of course, series to be won and ranking points to accrue and so on and so forth but, if you ever allow your enjoyment to be solely guided by something as peripheral as whether your team has triumphed or lost, you’re doing Test cricket all wrong. The shapeshifting tapestry of factors, actors and interactions within each five day contest are a constant affirmation of MS Dhoni’s phlegmatic claim that the game is about process not result. You can’t let your nationality trump that pleasure.
For Sri Lanka’s astonishing win in Pallekele in the First Test against Australia, however, both the match result and its fascinating cascade of processes were of huge significance. Given the elated scenes after Herath took the final wicket, it’s worth recalling just what a deflating runup to the match the home side had endured. Following largely supine and uninspiring displays in their series in England, Angelo Mathews’ incubating troop of youngsters also had to contend with a pointless off field spat between their board and, surreally, Muttiah Muralitharan. The dispute erupted because the world’s leading Test wickettaker was working with the Australian team as bowling consultant, leading to accusations of colluding with the enemy and bizarre suggestions of rude behaviour during a practice session in Colombo.
The issue ended with Murali leaving his job after being branded a traitor simply for being offered a job (something Sri Lanka Cricket hadn’t thought to do) and doing it. You really have to wonder if the issue would have become so toxic had Sri Lanka been coming into the series in good form. As we increasingly see with so many leaders in public life, accusing others of a lack of patriotism to distract from your own faults is both a terribly easy and sadly effective strategy. It was an unpleasant nonsense, nationality again being granted excessive importance to the detriment of cricket itself.
That Mathews’ side were able to overcome this silliness, as well as their recent form and appalling first innings tells you a great deal both about their youthful potential but also Australia’s longstanding Achilles. Astonishingly, they have won only one match in Asia in ten years, a subcontinent record even worse than that one Brett Lee sang on. Here they dug in gamely in their second innings, albeit with a commitment to pacifism which could make a nun look bellicose. At one stage they went a world record 154 balls without scoring a run, with O’Keefe and the increasingly stabilising Nevill the deadbatters in chief. This sort of trench warfare was commendable, but Australia’s overall effort with the bat was poor. Most worryingly for the tourists, the wicket could hardly be described as explosive, and was certainly not comparable to the feisty den of tricks which greeted South Africa on their tour of India last year. They were simply spun out.
Rangana Herath’s squat figure may increasingly resemble SpongeBob SquarePants in cricket whites, yet his fingers continue to induce flight that regularly saw Australians lumbering into footwork that looked as if they were batting under water. Debutant Lakshan Sandakan likewise seemed instantly at ease with Test cricket, exhibiting a self confidence and body language we can also see in Australia’s own young twirler Adam Zampa. A mental strut can be as powerful a weapon for a spinner as any of their variations, but Sandakan also has the advantage of being one of cricket’s elusive Amur Leopards, a chinaman bowler. It seems almost unfair to Australia that on top of their perennial spin woes they now have to contend with the added layer of perplexing complexity such an uncommon bowler brings. While the 25-year-old is still clearly only learning the ropes in Test cricket, he tied his opponents up in embarrassing knots, more often than not with a grin on his face. He also said in a press conference this week he had four variations lying in wait, essaying a Warnean ability to mentally weaken an opposition with his allusions as much as his line and length.
As the game reached its seemingly inevitable conclusion the threat of rain lingered uncomfortably, but the clouds stayed far enough away, perhaps sufficiently scared off by the hellish screech of Dinesh Chandimal’s appealing. Sounding like a man who has just trodden on a red hot piece of lego any time there is the vaguest chance of a wicket, the Sri Lankan keeper’s incessant vocal grenades are one of the most distinctive aspects of modern cricket. Here though, with an entire side around the bat as Sri Lanka closed in on victory, his shouts became just one part of a fervent choir of chunter and imploration.
It was desperately exciting, a classic predatory mob hounding its hapless prey and the sort of scene where you really rather missed Tony Greig sadly no longer being with us, as his effusive though astute effervescence would have been the perfect commentary corollary. The pressure at times seemed to seep beyond the players and into the minds of the officials, with the normally crosshair accurate Richard Kettleborough having a series of decisions overturned. As he had in other instances earlier in the match, the umpire could be seen muttering grouchily as he was asked to signal he’d got another one wrong. He may soon become the first official to report himself for dissent.
The most enchanting performance on display was, of course, the game defining innings of Kusal Mendis who days before the match declared, “My goal is to be a match winner for Sri Lanka.” Well, he’s hit his targets there, certainly, and in the process gave all of us one of those rare Eden Gardens ‘01, Headingley ‘81 thrills where the very fabric of a Test match is torn up before your giddy eyes. As the Sri Lankans celebrated, one Australian fan, Rob Moody, (better known as the owner of the greatest trove of cricket nostalgia available on YouTube) tweeted the following:
Pleasure to watch a young gun of the future in Mendis. Amazing innings under pressure. Cricket is great!
— Rob Moody (@robelinda2) July 30, 2016
A simple sentiment, but it struck as a pretty telling one. In most sports, the set of fans on the wrong end of a stunning turnaround can sometimes display magnanimity. In cricket, they display genuinely joy. It might be a hard sell to fans of the West Indies or Zimbabwe at the moment, but whatever a country’s results, in Test cricket there is always the greater pleasure of the process.
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Updated Date: Jul 31, 2016 12:40:09 IST