Season of the Underdog: How Lanka trumped Proteas in South Africa

R Kaushik
Sri Lanka became the first Asian side to beat the Proteas in their own backyard in a Test series

It had all the trappings of a classic David versus Goliath matchup: one could almost envision the young Israeli shepherd boy and the Philistine giant confronting each other on a cricket pitch instead of the Valley of Elah. And, in one of those glorious twists on which the game thrives, it was David again who came out, miraculously, on top.

Sri Lanka arrived in South Africa last month, meek, submissive, uncertain, indecisive and fearful. The visitors had lost seven of their preceding eight Tests, including three on the bounce to England in their own backyard. They were also just coming off crushing defeats €" by 423 runs (to New Zealand), and by an innings and 40 runs, and 366 runs (both to Australia) €" in the previous five weeks.

They were without their two best batsmen. Angelo Mathews, the former skipper, was unavailable because of injury, while Dinesh Chandimal had been sacked as captain and dropped altogether after forgettable outings in the Antipodes. Three of their first-choice pacemen were at home, recovering from injuries. Their coach had been divested of his responsibilities as a member of the selection panel, which made no secret of the fact that Dimuth Karunaratne had been elevated to captaincy purely on an interim basis.

By contrast, the Proteas had just upended a formidable Pakistani outfit 3-0, their confidence was immense, and they had every reason to believe that they had the firepower and resources to swat aside what was expected to be a feeble Sri Lankan challenge.

Playing well above themselves and feeding off the professed unfamiliarity of the South Africans with several of their new faces, Karunaratne's warriors turned the established order upside down in a fortnight. The absolute no-hopers grew fangs to drive the high-flying hosts to their knees, sweeping to a 2-0 victory and setting stall as the first Asian nation to secure a series triumph on South African soil.

Perhaps, South Africa were so convinced of their invulnerability against Sri Lanka in their own den that they took things for granted. Perhaps, Faf du Plessis' men believed all they had to do to win was turn up. With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to pillory South Africa for being cocky and complacent, but few even in the Lankan camp would have foreseen what unfolded, first in Durban and then in the picture-postcard city of Port Elizabeth.

There was a touch of disbelief to the way the first Test unfolded at Kingsmead. Despite being caught napping by the left-arm pace of Vishwa Fernando and the left-arm spin of debutant Lasith Embuldeniya, South Africa were always in control after setting their opponents a target of 304. The bogey of familiar batting collapses in alien lands against quality attacks reared its head when, despite Kusal Janith Perera's pyrotechnics, the visitors subsided to 226 for nine. A Proteas win seemed a mere formality but, showcasing the freeness of mind that had been Lankan cricket's USP in the days of Ranatunga and de Silva, Jayawardene and Sangakkara, Jayasuriya and Dilshan, Murali and Vaas, Perera battered Steyn, Rabada and Olivier into submission. His partner in crime during that soul-stirring last-wicket stand of 78 was Fernando, in only his fourth Test and a true No. 11.

Fernando rode blows to body and limb but kept his promise to Perera of holding his end up. Perera, him with a dash of Jayasuriya to his stroke-play, needed no further goading. He smashed 67 in the alliance of 78, which remains the highest last-wicket association in a successful chase. South Africa were incredulous, Sri Lanka delirious.

Even then, not many took the Lankans seriously. The popular belief was that Perera had been other-worldly, that normal service would resume in Port Elizabeth. There seemed some merit to that theory when Sri Lanka were shot out for 154 and conceded a lead of 68, but their quicks  thrived on South Africa's diffidence to skittle them out for 128. A more modest chase of 197 was achieved with ease and authority; Oshada Fernando in his second Test and the supremely gifted Kusal Mendis muscling the team home with a rollicking unbeaten third-wicket partnership of 163. This time, the celebrations were muted; it was as if Sri Lanka expected to win. In a matter of two weeks, nervous boys had transformed into confident, ambitious men.

For a proud nation and its passionate, patient and persevering fans, this result couldn't have come at a better time. The immediate danger of Lankan cricket, hanging on to dear life by the slenderest of threads, self-destructing and setting itself back by a few decades has passed. But for Karunaratne's men, this has to only be the beginning, not an end in itself. The Sri Lankan lion has rediscovered its roar. Now is the time to build on the gains of this unexpected windfall.

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