Herath rages against inept display
As the torment of day one morphed into day two's toil for Sri Lanka, the indiscipline that laid their batting low invaded their efforts in the field and worsened distress to despair.
Perhaps it was never fair to expect Sri Lanka to outplay Australia at home, and even less likely they would effect a series win given the paucity of their pace attack. But the most disheartening aspect of their MCG performance has not been their lack of muscle. They have instead been clobbered by their own dearth of resolve and an inability to mount a riposte at Australia's challenge.
Sri Lanka may have been significantly hampered by a probable series-ending injury to their leading fast bowler, Chanaka Welegedara, but the chances they missed in the field were a greater cause of grief, as defining as they have been to the scoreline, and as such, to Sri Lanka's hopeless plight. When they had Australia at 117 for 3, Sri Lanka could dream of beginning the second innings with a deficit on the sunnier side of 100, but instead they shelled chance after chance of surging back into the game.
Michael Clarke was the first to be reprieved by Tillakaratne Dilshan at short mid-on, before Kumar Sangakkara gave Shane Watson the first of his lives by spilling an edge. They were tough chances, and Sangakkara would not have expected to don the gloves at the MCG, but when your side has made such a paltry first innings total, failing to take such opportunities is to accept an invitation of pain.
Clarke danced down the track to Rangana Herath all morning, and when a stumping chance finally came, he was again let off. Luck may have spat on Sangakkara, as the ball deflected off Clarke's back leg to evade his grasp, but Sri Lanka can hardly be dismayed when fortune spurns them when they have so consistently spurned her. Clarke is so drenched in form he could exhale runs at present and given Sri Lanka allowed him a third life on a good pitch, perhaps they should be grateful he only made a century.
The Clarke chances, the dropped slip catch off Watson and another difficult chance off Michael Hussy, were all off Herath's bowling, and perhaps for the first time in his international career, the determination in his perpetual grimace gave way not to disappointment, but to anger. "I served up the wicket of the best batsman in the world this year and one of the world's best players of spin, twice," his expression screamed in the first session. "This is a first innings pitch. What more do you want me to do?"
That Herath ended the day without a scalp to his name is not only a severe injustice, it is an indictment on his teammates who have ill-supported their matchwinner. Herath is new to the praise that his misfiring colleagues have been adorned in for years, but if they had displayed even a fraction of his desire in this match, Sri Lanka might well be alive in it.
In many ways Herath is also the perfect role model for Sri Lanka. They may never have a domestic competition so burdened with treasure that they can dip into it at will and unearth a cricketer of immediate Test quality, as Australia have done with Jackson Bird, but there are means to maximising limited talent and Herath has achieved that through force of will. If he was playing at club level, Herath might take bagfuls of wickets but few will suspect he is capable of being one of the best bowlers in the world. If his refusal to be cowed by the opposition at the bowling crease does not make plain the avenue he has trod to acclaim, his tenacity in the field certainly outlines it.
Among Test cricketers, he is perhaps the most unlikely athlete, yet he drives himself to be safe in the field, and has, three times, pulled off the kind of unforgettable catches most cricketers might only achieve once in their career. His stellar one-handed grab to dismiss Hussey at long on bore strong parallels to an almost identical, but perhaps even more thrilling, effort against the same opposition in an ODI at the Gabba early this year, though his catch diving forward at the Premadasa in a Test against West Indies was of a completely different vein altogether. In all three catches, perhaps a quicker man would have covered the ground with more ease and pocketed their chances more comfortably. But faced with a daunting task, Herath exploited every ounce of ability available to him to achieve the desired result.
Sri Lanka may not have a Test side capable of dominating Australia from start to finish, but in Melbourne they have been as meek and as inept as they have been in any Test in recent years. They are hurtling towards an innings defeat, with any hope of a 2011 Durban repeat obliterated long ago. Unless they can dig up the nerve and the courage that have at times been at the core of Sri Lanka's cricket, their first Boxing Day Test in 17 years could end in three days.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here