In-form Angelo Mathews key in Australia
Two years ago at the MCG, Angelo Mathews was the architect of one of Sri Lanka's most memorable victories. Chasing 240 to win in an ODI, Sri Lanka were cruising with their two most experienced hands at the wheel at 73 for 2, before they quickly ran aground on Xavier Doherty's debutant spin.
It is a match almost every Sri Lankan supporter remembers vividly, and no retelling of that evening is incomplete without a confession of how close each supporter was to turning off the television at 107 for 8. Though they can sometimes be fickle, no Sri Lanka fan admits to having abandoned hope that night. They were rewarded with a nerveless 77 not out from Mathews, a heart-stopping 132-run ninth-wicket stand, and a one-wicket win so well esteemed it has since been tagged colloquially as the "Melbourne Miracle".
As Sri Lanka prepare for their biggest Test tour in years, which includes their first Boxing Day Test in 17 years, Mathews will hope to draw inspiration from his past successes in Australia.
In many ways, that innings was the making of Mathews. His promise had been plain almost since his debut, but he had not announced himself world class until then. In the 2009 World Twenty20, he stole hearts with his athleticism and presence of mind at the boundary rope, but in Melbourne he earned the world's respect. Though he has not always found consistency with the bat, he has since played several innings of similar stature from hopeless positions, forging renown for a cool head and even temperament.
Increasingly, Mathews has also allied his considerable self-belief with a burgeoning maturity that has seen his Test game grow. Not long ago, he played cricket with a boy's ambition. In December 2009, he neared a maiden Test ton against India, but wound himself so uncharacteristically tight that he ran himself out on 99. Last year, he copped criticism for delaying Sri Lanka's ODI victory at Lord's so that Dinesh Chandimal to get to a hundred, before attracting similar sentiments when he made his own first ton, having crawled towards the milestone when quick runs would have served the team better. The scope of his goals have seemingly widened in the year since, and his last innings against New Zealand suggests, he has realised the burden of leadership is not long from being upon him, and he must play accordingly.
After his stoic 84 at the P Sara Oval in a losing cause, present captain Mahela Jayawardene acclaimed Mathews' innings as exactly the sort required from a future captain. Three far more illustrious colleagues had been removed cheaply by the movement, bounce and pace of New Zealand's seam bowlers, but Mathews' innings was chanceless from the outset, and his mind resolute. Men with many more matches in their memory had wafted tentatively and aggressed nervously, but Mathews' beat was steady and his dance sure-footed. As each comrade fell, he farmed the strike and soaked up everything the opposition could throw at him, but when the second new ball arrived, the tailenders he was left with gave him no support at all. No one who saw his defiance will think he deserved to be on the losing team that day, and he had fought with bat in hand throughout the series, finding himself mounting a rescue in each innings after the top order had failed. His return of 210 from No. 6 was by far Sri Lanka's highest for the series, and eclipses the tallies of Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, and Tillakaratne Dilshan combined.
"He batted really well in the entire series - not just in Colombo but in Galle as well, where he batted under pressure," Jayawardene said at the end of the series. "He came and adapted to the situation. No. 6 is not an easy position to bat but Angelo is a guy who seems to find that little bit of extra mental strength. That's why we've identified him as one of the future leaders. He's showing that quality, and as long as he enjoys those kinds of challenges, I think he'll be a really good captain."
As Sri Lanka begin acclimatising to Australian conditions, Mathews can take confidence in having already bucked the subcontinent trend and proved himself undaunted by fast bowling on quick, bouncy pitches. He is perhaps the most natural puller of the ball in the side and has used the shot to prosper both in Australia and against them. His Test average of 91.33 against Australia has been constructed at home, but in ODI cricket he averages 51.50 Down Under.
If Sri Lanka's top order cannot turn their poor run around in time for the Tests, it may fall to Mathews to provide the steel to the innings. His most memorable performance in his young career came at the MCG, but by entering into a tough series with runs behind him and a technique that flourishes in alien conditions, he has given himself a chance of scripting an innings that surpasses even the "Melbourne Miracle".
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent