Beating South Africa in South Africa in a Test is no mean task. Prior to the most recent series, Sri Lanka had won only once in 13 attempts.
Beating South Africa in South Africa in two consecutive Tests needs a herculean effort. Since South Africa’s re-entry to the international arena in 1992, no side apart from Australia has managed the feat. Australia have in fact managed it four times since 1992, with the last occasion being 2009.
This, until Sri Lanka decided to change history coming from nowhere to whitewash South Africa in the two-Test series that ended on Saturday (February 23). Plenty of sides have tried in vain over decades, but it’s Dimuth Karunaratne’s Sri Lanka who are the first Asian side to win a Test series in South Africa. What they’ve achieved over the last two weeks is a story that deserves to be chronicled as books and documentaries, purely for the context.
A quick glance at the circumstances in which Sri Lanka entered the tour tells a story in itself. In their last three series, they had been whitewashed by Australia in Australia, England at home, and lost 0-1 in a two-Test series in New Zealand.
It was a string of results that forced the selectors to drop Dinesh Chandimal, their captain. The most senior player, Angelo Mathews, was out with injury. Coach
Chandika Hathurusingha was removed as a selector. Their frontline pacers - Lahiru Kumara, Dushmantha Chameera and Nuwan Pradeep were injured.
The primary spinner Dilruwan Perera was dropped. The other offspinner Akila Dananjaya was called for a suspect action.
It wouldn’t be unfair to say Sri Lanka’s selectors didn’t foresee or expect the eventual result when they selected the 17-member squad, with a new captain and eight members with experience of fewer than five Tests. Four of those were uncapped. Two of them -left arm spinner Lasith Embuldeniya and top-order batsman Oshada Fernando - went on to make their debut.
All this, and a cloud of various match-fixing allegations that have been hampering Sri Lankan cricket in the last few months.
The manner in which Sri Lanka achieved the wins is equally, if not more, terrific. They conceded first-innings lead in both the matches, but fought back to chase down tricky/competitive targets in the fourth innings on both occasions. Since 1992, only 14 times out of 71 matches have visiting teams won after fielding first in South Africa. Forty of those matches have resulted in losses for the visiting sides.
The first match in Durban was a freak effort. Innings like Kusal Perera’s don’t come too often, but even that win wasn’t a one-man effort. While Perera ran away with all the accolades, and rightly so, it was the bowlers who had set up even a chance for a win. Vishwa Fernando bagged four wickets in each innings. Debutant Embuldeniya got five in the second innings.
The manner in which Sri Lanka exploited South Africa’s top-order woes was there for all to see. The Faf du Plessis led side has lost their first three wickets for less than 50 runs in nine of their last 27 Test innings. It includes the first innings in Durban when they were 17 for 3, and the corresponding innings in Port Elizabeth when they were 15 for 3. In the second innings of the second Test, they were marginally better: 51 for 3! Embuldeniya was injured and unavailable then, but Suranga Lakmal stepped up to play a crucial role, as did Dhananjaya de Silva.
“It’s not the pitch that should be reported. It’s some of the batsmen from both sides that should be reported to the ICC," Michael Holding said on air on the second day’s play, in jest referring to the lack of quality batting throughout the South African summer. He might have changed his opinion slightly after the fourth innings, seeing Kusal Mendis and Oshada Fernando score half-centuries en route a comfortable win.
Durban was a miracle but also an opportunity for Sri Lanka to show it wasn’t a one-off. They did that in style in Port Elizabeth, chasing down the target for an eight-wicket win. No heart-attacks like the previous game, but it showed Sri Lanka had depth and promise.
In many ways, Sri Lanka have to do what they did in Port Elizabeth all over again over the next few years. This is the perfect springboard for Sri Lanka to use for bigger leaps and become the side they once were.
If they can do that, the moments captured in this tweet could well turn out to be the two biggest turning points in their cricketing history: