Durban was once considered South Africa’s fortress as the conditions were almost impossible to play in, for an away side. But now that is just a myth as teams have started to unravel the mystery of playing South Africa at home and in particular Durban. India did the same on the 29th December 2010 by winning, and Sri Lanka are added to that tally of teams by winning on the same day this year!
Sri Lanka were under enormous pressure from all quarters, the media, public, administration and former players alike when they arrived in South Africa recently after a disastrous tour of UAE losing to Pakistan in both the Tests and ODI series. Kepler Wessels went on record to say that looking at the team’s form, even the South Africa A team can defeat them convincingly. The Durban result will surely make him take back his words, even as the skipper Dilshan said that the team wants to thank him for motivating them by that statement!
Tillakratne Dilshan had not won a single Test as captain prior to this game. So it is an icing on the cake for him to lead the team to the winning post at last, and that too against the World No.3 Test side in their conditions. The Sri Lankan team’s performance was clinical in all departments equally. In other words, it was a team effort as there was no stand out performer as such despite Rangana Herath winning the man of the match award eventually, for his 9-wicket haul in the match.
Sri Lanka had some luck with the coin as Dilshan won the toss and batted first. At 162/5, the team was staring down the barrel as in Centurion but there was a fine partnership to watch between the veteran Thilan Samaraweera and the debutant Dinesh Chandimal. Chandimal scored an impressive half-century in his first Test and that too in conditions much different than at home, while Samaraweera went on hit what was only the second ton hit by a Sri Lankan in South Africa. Sanath Jayasuriya had correctly predicted prior to this Test that if anyone had to take responsibility to steer the team’s batting ship further in this series, it had to be Samaraweera. Sri Lanka scored a sizeable total of 338 due to those efforts though the other debutant, Marchant de Lange picked up 7 wickets in the innings and played spoilsport for the Lankans.
However, the tigers could sense a turnaround as they reduced South Africa to 27/3 in the first innings. The home side’s batting was questionable just as it was in the Australia series recently, as none of the batsmen scored heavily except Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers. Amla continued his scintillating run in Test cricket with another fifty while de Villiers fought hard for his 25. The moment both these wickets fell, it spelt doom for the rest of the batting line-up. Wickets fell in a heap as the Proteas were bowled out for 168, with the left-armers Chanaka Welegedara and Herath being the men in destruction, one being a lanky pacer and the other a wily tweaker.
Welegedara’s 5-wicket haul in the first innings was extremely instrumental in demoralizing the home team as it was an inspired bit of fast bowling from a man who was underestimated by many at the start of the series. Sri Lanka acquired a massive first-innings lead of 170 runs and the hosts’ task was cut out with the ball. The Lankans batting woes looked to continue at the top, with Dilshan ending 2011 on a low note with the bat in particular and Mahela Jayawardene continuing to struggle since the home series against Australia a few months ago.
However, as Jayawardene reached the elite club by scoring 10,000 runs in Tests, Sri Lanka’s rise began in the innings. The pair of Samaraweera and Chandimal fared well in the second innings also, with the latter scoring another half-century on debut, joining the likes of Kevin Pietersen to accomplish this feat. While as long as someone as reliable as Samaraweera was at the crease, it allowed Kumar Sangakkara to get back the touch he lost in the earlier matches of the tour. Despite the rest of the batsmen not contributing much, Sangakkara did not let this opportunity slip by, to add to his tally a maiden hundred in South Africa. It was an exceptional innings from an exceptional batsman as Sangakkara proved his critics wrong majestically, who believed that he will not thrive in not-so-flat pitches and tricky conditions.
His Deccan Chargers team-mate, Dale Steyn though ended with another five-wicket haul in Tests as Sri Lanka labored to 279 all out. There were already several outstanding individual performances in the match at this juncture, but the entire South African team had to play out of their skins to chase a total of 450 in the second innings. And when South Africa try to play out of their skins, more often than not it is the C-word which dominates their performance, i.e, ‘choke’.
It happened yet again. South Africa were never in the run-chase as Sri Lanka kept putting pressure on the batters with regular wickets, just as in the first innings. While Amla also scored two fifties in the game, Kallis bagged his first pair of zeroes in Test cricket. Experience was needed and none of the South African batsmen were able to handle Sri Lanka’s fired-up bowling unit. Herath had another mad streak of picking up wickets as South Africa were bowled out for a mere 241 and ended with a brilliant 5-wicket haul. Steyn showed that he can bat a bit while de Villiers was again positive in his 69. These were the few highlights of an otherwise unsuccessful run-chase from South Africa which allowed Sri Lanka to create history and the likes of Dilshan being immortal in the cricketing history of the nation.
It is said that you do not realize the value of something until you do not have it with you. In this case, it was a Test win for Sri Lanka as the last time they had won a Test was against India at Galle in 2010. Sri Lanka now know what a victory tastes like, especially without their legendary off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan who was actually the man responsible for helping Sri Lanka win that Test in Galle. I would not be surprised to know about them celebrating the New Year heavily as they deserve to after a tumultuous year for them to face, which even included not being paid their salaries.
However, there is one last job to be done and that is clinch a series win in South Africa, something which only a few teams have achieved in the past. If they are successful in this task, they can boast about having a great future and burying the ghosts of Murali’s retirement, which was haunting them for over a year now.