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Test #1459 Sri Lanka vs Australia at Kandy. Report by John Clifford.

One of the most remarkable test matches of the modern was witnessed by a crowd of almost 350,000 people. It was a performance that no one who witnessed the action of the last two days unfold before them will ever forget...

The initial decision at the toss was made easier for Australian captain Steve Waugh after the late inclusion of Colin Miller, who replaced the unlucky Michael Kasprowicz when the Queenslander was forced to pull out with a back complaint less than an hour before the start. With two spinners in the side, batting first was the only option on the somewhat dusty track that was liable to turn from the second session onwards.

The openers made a solid enough start, both looking comfortable against the out of form Vaas and young Zoysa. Blewett raced to 42 from just forty six balls with eight boundaries, including two consecutive pulls off Zoysa that must have dropped just millimetres inside the rope. Slater, although playing a more subdued role than he is normally used to, also seemed to be coasting. The quicks never looked like breaking through, and it wasn't until the introduction of Chandana and Muralitharan after just over an hour that things started to change. Blewett immediately went back into his shell, adding only five runs from his next nineteen balls. He played forward to one that dipped, and skied an easy catch to Ranatunga at shortish cover.

Justin Langer, struggling to hold down the number three position, joined Slater, and the two carried Australia through the rest of the session fairly uneventfully. A good start for the away side, 1/105 at lunch. It looked like a massive score was on the cards as the previously quiet Langer belted Muralitharan out of the attack with three boundaries of one over. Vaas was brought back and had almost immediate success, finding an edge off a lazy Langer drive to bring Mark Waugh to the crease.

Slater had looked in no trouble, playing one of his better innings for Australia since his fairly recent return from a two year absence. But on 76, he swept a wide delivery Chandana, got a top edge and saw the ball lob into the hands of Ranatunga for catch number two. Chandana then made it two wickets in two overs when he found the second edge of the day to see Mark Waugh (9) back in the pavilion. Waugh senior was joined by Ricky Ponting (16), who struggled against Muralitharan for almost fifty minutes. When he departed, bowled by Muralitharan, Australia had ruined a great start to be 5/213.

The situation didn't get any better as Ian Healy became Chandana's third victim in the next over. It seemed as though Steve Waugh (29) was the only hope left for the struggling Australians, but when he went for a heave over mid wicket that came unstuck, the innings was all but over. That wicket, Chandana's fourth, and the fall of Gillespie without score next over, had the Aussies reeling at 8/223. Some later order resistance from Warne (15*) and Miller (12) took the final score to 245. Muralitharan, with the last three wickets, and Chandana, ended with the impressive figures of 5/68 and 4/68 respectively. Sri Lanka then started poorly, coming out to bat with eight overs to face until stumps and losing Marvan Atapattu for one in the fifth of those overs. No night watchman was required as Russel Arnold came out to face the music.

The second day saw a fast paced first session. Resuming at 1/13, that soon became 2/21 as Arnold's blazing bat saw a well hit cut fly to the left of a diving Blewett, who threw out a hand and completed a very fine catch indeed. Jason Gillespie, after knocking Atapattu's middle stump fifteen metres back the previous evening, picked up the vital scalp of Aravinda De Silva for a duck to have Sri Lanka in all sorts of trouble at 3/24. The two jayas- 'Suriya and 'Wardene, helped their side out of the mud with a solid fourth wicket partnership. The introduction of Steve Waugh to fill in the gap as Warne and Gillespie changed ends brought unanticipated success. Jayasuriya (43) played a poor stroke, not moving his feet and lashing outside off. An edge behind was the result, and it was 4/75.

Captain Arjuna Ranatugna strode to the crease in his predictably laid back style, but was put straight under pressure from the hostile Australian pace duo of McGrath and Gillespie. However, with little help from the pitch, this aggressive method was never going to last, and it wasn't long before Warne was brought back. After some solid resistance that lasted well into the second session, Warne managed to find a crack in the pitch that enabled a skidding top spinner to fly under the bat of Jayawardene (54) and take middle and off. Ranatunga continued to bat in fine style, looking certain to post his half century until he cross-batted a half volley from Colin Miller straight to Blewett at mid wicket when on 42.

That wicket seemed to be the trigger for a serious collapse, as the next four wickets fell fairly cheaply. Vaas (18) tried his hardest, but other than him the tail failed poorly. Kaluwitharana looked completely out of sorts on the way to scoring one from eighteen balls. Miller, in taking the last five wickets of the innings, picked up the first five wicket hall of his career. A total of 177 was not what the Sri Lankans were after.

Australia's second innings was somewhat of a disappointment. Whilst the final total of 317 gave them a very good lead, almost every player got a start and no one went on with it. This would have been a worry for Steve Waugh, as at 6/211 Sri Lanka were still in the match. That score came after another successful opening stand of seventy eight between Slater (49) and Blewett (57). Six of the next seven batsmen scored between 10 and 60, Ian Healy (55) leading the way with another back-against-the-wall innings.

Set 385 to win, the task was always going to be a tough one. Beginning their innings late on the third day Sri Lanka started horribly, losing two wickets in the first six overs. Jayasuriya (3) was first to go as Gillespie broke through in over number four. It was perhaps the perfect ball to bowl. Pitched just short of a length and on off stump, Jayasuriya was forced to play at a ball that swung wildly after it pitched, found the edge of the blade and landed happily in the hands of fourth slip Michael Slater. More jubilation was to follow for Australia in Gillespie's next over as he wrapped the out of form Marvan Atapattu on the pads right in front. No hesitation from umpire Bucknor, who lifted the finger to signal a devastating start for the Sri Lankans. A slight recovery ended with Sri Lanka on 2/36 at stumps.

Day four began in good style for Arnold and De Silva. They batted steadily together, De Silva the aggressor, and looked set to bat right through the opening session. In the last over before the break, disaster struck as Aravinda was given out in controversial circumstances, leg before wicket for a dashing 65. On looking at the replay, the ball seemed to have hit bat before pad. De Silva certainly thought so as he stood in disbelief, staring at the home umpire with mouth wide open. He eventually gave up and walked off the ground head down, clearly uttering something under his breath.

Young star Mahela Jayawardene was next in, but his stay was relatively short lived. He went to pad a ball away from Warne that seemed to run up his leg, catch the edge of the bat and lob to the right of the always athletic Ricky Ponting, who pulled off a spectacular catch from silly mid off. Ranatunga signaled his intentions right from the start, picking up where he left off in the first innings with three boundaries in his first ten balls. A promising partnership had begun to develop when Arnold, on 85, was caught by Healy off the ever reliable McGrath.

A delicately placed match was put on hold for well over an hour as light, yet severely frustrating shower lasted longer than expected. When play resumed, Kaluwitharana, who had decided enough was enough after managing only three runs from thirty two balls before the unexpected interval, smashed three boundaries in successive balls to race to fifteen. Next ball was not there to be put to the fence as little Romesh lashed at one too many, played over it and had his stumps cleaned up by Gillespie. That wicket signaled stumps on the day, and at that stage it seemed also on any hope Sri Lanka had of starting the series in glorious fashion.

Ranatunga and Chandana, the unheralded spinner who picked up eight wickets for the match, went about their arduous task in slow an steady fashion. Ranatunga did most of the scoring, and with the occasional flash of brilliance helped lessen the gap significantly. You could sense the pressure right around the stadium build up as the day progressed. Incredibly, the same unlikely pair that started the day together at 6/241 went to lunch at 6/329. There would most likely be a result in the next two hours.

There was no let up for either side after the break. Chandana continued to play the supporting role in wonderful fashion, while Ranatunga, although slowing the pace somewhat, looked as comfortable as ever. The next twenty one runs took all of an hour, but at 6/350 Sri Lanka were, incredibly, in the box seat. The twenty first of these runs brought up one of the great test centuries by a captain. Arjuna Ranatunga, belittled and hated by the Australians for his antics on the previous Australian tour, took another step towards signaling his place as one of the best batsmen in world cricket. But his joy was short lived. Another change in the bowling, and finally success. McGrath, to the horror of the crowd and delight of the Australians, found the first error in Ranatunga's brilliant knock. The fast bowler gave Greg Blewett his third catch of the match and Australia more than just a sniff of victory. Chandana seemed to lose all confidence in his own ability after that, and when he inevitably edged behind off Gillespie, Australia, again incredibly, was on top.

8/352, and still thirty five runs required. It is difficult to describe exactly what happened in the next forty minutes of test match cricket. The pressure on the two fast bowlers, Vaas and Zoysa, would certainly have been greater than either of them had ever experienced before. It did not seem to faze them. They rose to the occasion, played their natural game, and won the match off their own bats. Neither player gave a chance, no words spoken between them. They both knew what they had to do, and did it with such an alarming ease that no one, not even Steve Waugh, as devastated as he was, would say they didn't deserve to do it.

An incredible test match, and one that will stick in the memories of everyone as long as they live.

Revised: Saturday, 16 March 2013.
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