Dimuth Karunaratne celebrates scoring a century during the day five of the first Test cricket match between Sri Lanka and New Zealand in Galle yesterday
Lahiru Thirimanne plays a shot during theday five of the first Test cricket match between Sri Lanka and New Zealand in Galle yesterday
By Madushka Balasuriya
In a Test full of twists and turns, the only surprise on the final day was that there were none, as Sri Lanka chased down what many presumed would be a testing fourth innings target of 268 with six wickets in hand, and nerves well intact. The win sees Sri Lanka not only take a 1-0 lead in the two-Test series, but also summit the World Test Championship table with 60 points.
Such was the comfortable and controlled nature of Sri Lanka’s chase, the only real moment of tension arose when there was doubt over whether or not they would be able to complete the chase before the lunch break. With 22 runs still to get, the morning session was extended by 15 minutes, as the very real possibility began to loom of both sides, and all the fans that had gathered on the banks of the Galle Fort, having to endure a 40-minute lunch interval before seeing Sri Lanka complete a well-deserved victory.
In the end, though, that too proved to be a bit of a red herring, as common sense prevailed; with Sri Lanka still needing nine runs to win as the clock struck 12.15 p.m., both captains agreed to play on.
Angelo Mathews knocked off the winning runs with a flick towards backward square leg, adding an unbeaten 28 to go with his first innings fifty. But the chase – the highest successful one at Galle since Sri Lanka chased down 99 against Pakistan in 2014 – was all about two men at the top of the order.
While the game had several match-defining performances from both sides – the five-fors from Akila Dananjaya and Ajaz Patel, Ross Taylor’s counterattacking 86, Niroshan Dickwella’s nerveless 61, Suranga Lakmal’s defiant 40, and BJ Watling’s chanceless 77, among others – all those were arguably overshadowed by the record-breaking 4th innings opening stand of 161 between Dimuth Karunaratne and Lahiru Thirimanne.
Not only was it the best 4th innings partnership at Galle, it was the second-best partnership ever at Galle; the fourth best 4th innings partnership by a Sri Lankan pair ever; the fifth best opening stand by Sri Lanka; and the 11th best 4th innings opening stand in history.
It is also the first time in Sri Lanka’s history that they have secured three straight Test victories while chasing in the 4th innings. And while this chase, despite its impressive nature, will still pale in comparison to the madness that was Durban earlier this year, it is nevertheless informative of the recent shift in resolve and mentality from Sri Lanka’s batting order.
Having witnessed a first innings collapse of 5 for 18 nearly derail Sri Lanka’s hopes of victory before they had even formed, Karunaratne was determined to ensure there would be no repeat performance. Of course, his knock of 122 – his ninth in Tests, and his first in 23 innings since scoring one against South Africa, also in Galle, last year – was not completely chance-free. There were a couple of dropped opportunities, mostly tough but one that really should have been taken, and other close calls past the outside edge, but on a difficult surface, a truly chanceless innings is a rare thing indeed.
On the other side, meanwhile, was Lahiru Thirimanne, long the bane of many Sri Lankan cricket fans’ existence. Leading up to this game, Thirimanne had scored one fifty in his most recent 23 Test innings. His career Test average stood sub-25. In the first innings of this Test he had drawn further ire from the watching public with the most inept of dismissals – an ill-advised, poorly judged, and all-round unnecessary advance down the wicket, only to be stumped for an unconvincing 10 runs. So it was indeed a pleasant surprise to see him produce 64 hard-fought runs, just when his team needed it most.
After a patchy start, as was the case for most of the batsmen on a sluggish Galle surface, a reverse sweep on the fourth afternoon had seemingly settled Thirimanne. Having reached his fifty the previous evening, he continued in the same vein the following morning, as the elegant left-hander remained confident in unleashing his sweeps and reverse sweeps.
While it was a missed sweep in the end that did him in, caught LBW upon referral, Thirimanne’s innings would have the more lasting effect of putting New Zealand’s bevy of spinners off their lengths. A succession of new men managed to capitalise on this as Sri Lanka drew ever close to their target.
Kusal Mendis took William Somerville for a lofted boundary over midwicket, and a glorious strike over long-on for six, while Somerville was targeted again by the insouciant Kusal Perera, when one over-pitched outside off was dispatched to the cover fence. The introduction of pace did little to stem the flow of runs, as Sri Lanka’s batsmen continued to find the boundaries into ever more egregious gaps, as Kane Williamson tried in vain to dictate proceedings with one-sided fields. While this aggressive approach from Sri Lanka, combined with a desire to be done with proceedings in the morning session, meant the likes of Mendis and Perera fell cheaply, the platform laid by Karunaratne and Thirimanne – and the subsequent confidence that imbued in the rest of the batting order – meant that, even in a match of comebacks, a New Zealand one was simply beyond the realms of possibility.
Pics by Chamila Karunarathne