History was against this Sri Lanka team, so they created their own. Before this series, Sri Lanka had beaten Australia just once – one single Test in 33 years of cricket between the nations. Kumar Sangakkara, perhaps the finest batsman Sri Lanka has ever produced, played 134 Tests and never tasted victory against Australia. Dhananjaya de Silva and Lakshan Sandakan, uncapped a month ago, have now played in three.
So too has Rangana Herath, whose grey-tinged hair and cuddly build can trick you into thinking he was born 38 years old. But he was young once. At 21, he sat in the rooms in Kandy and watched his squad-mates beat Australia in 1999, the only previous occasion on which they had managed the feat. Herath had to wait until the next Test in the series to make his debut. Seventeen years later, he has been part of whitewashing Australia.
A significant part, in fact, for Herath finished the series as the leading wicket taker, with 28 at 12.75. And never was he more devastating than the final day of the final Test, when he collected 7 for 64 to bowl Sri Lanka to their triumph. Set 324 for victory, Australia briefly dreamed of a consolation win while David Warner was moving briskly to 68. But once he departed the capitulation came quickly, Australia bowled out for 160, defeated by 163 runs.
Make no mistake: this series was a complete humiliation for Australia. They arrived in Sri Lanka as the No.1 team in the world, confident of overcoming No.7. Apart from the first day of the series, when they skittled Sri Lanka for 117, Australia were rarely in with a chance. The No.1 ranking is not only gone, but Australia have slipped to third, behind India and Pakistan, while Sri Lanka have moved up to sixth. Australia’s loss in Colombo was their ninth consecutive Test defeat in Asia, a record that augurs exceptionally poorly for their four-Test tour of India early next year.
Mitchell Starc was brilliant, finishing with 24 wickets and the best strike-rate of any bowler ever to take 20 wickets in a Test series in Asia. But the batting was deplorable. Only twice in the past hundred years have Australia’s batsmen collectively averaged so few runs in a series of three or more Tests as the 19.86 they averaged in this series. There were good excuses on the other occasions: in 1978-79 Australia were ravaged by World Series Cricket, and in England in 1956, Jim Laker was unplayable on uncovered pitches prepared to suit him.
To Sum up
David Warner set up a potentially thrilling finish to the third Test in Colombo, where Australia reached 77 for 1 at lunch in their chase of 324. The target required Australia to score more in the fourth innings of a Test in Asia than they ever had before, and to do so at a reasonable rate – a minimum of 83 overs were allocated for the innings. By lunch they needed a further 247 from at least 61.2 overs.
Warner was the key, having moved to 44 from 64 deliveries. He started briskly and struck three fours and one six, using his feet well and taking advantage of any loose deliveries from Sri Lanka’s spinners. A defensive tactic of bowling offspin around the wicket and outside leg slowed his progress towards the end of the session, but his ability to score quickly meant that while he remained at the crease, anything was possible.
Angelo Mathews had given his batsmen nearly five overs on the final morning to add a few more runs – 35 to be precise – and if it seemed an overly conservative decision Australia’s strong start might have made him wish he had delayed his declaration even further. However, on the stroke of lunch Sri Lanka struck their first blow, when Shaun Marsh on 22 poked a catch off Dilruwan Perera to short leg, where Kusal Mendis brilliantly took it on the second grab.
Four overs earlier, Mathews had been so desperate for a breakthrough that he used up both of Sri Lanka’s reviews in consecutive deliveries. The first came when Perera turned one from outside leg and Warner padded up – the ball lobbed off his pad to Mathews at slip but not off the glove or bat, as the Sri Lankans wanted. The second was a quicker ball that trapped Warner in front, but the delivery had pitched outside leg.
Sri Lanka’s three finger spinners, who did all of the bowling up to lunch, found turn and occasionally delivered a pearler, but generally they lacked the threatening presence that had often been seen in this series. Wrist-spinner Lakshan Sandakan, who went wicketless in the first innings, should find plenty of spin after lunch.
Earlier, Dhananjaya de Silva finished unbeaten on 65 and Suranga Lakmal was on 4 when Sri Lanka’s declaration came with the total on 347 for 8. De Silva is likely to finish the series as the highest scorer from either side, with a tally of 325 from six innings, a fine achievement in his debut series.
To win, Australia would need their highest ever fourth-innings total in Asia, their current best being the 307 for 7 that delivered them victory against Bangladesh in Fatullah in 2006. A Sri Lankan triumph would result in a historic whitewash against Australia, which would be the fourth in Sri Lanka’s history against all comers – they have beaten Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and West Indies 3-0 once each.