Desperation turns to jubilation
Desperation is giving the wicketkeeper the ball in the last over before tea on the final day of a Test match. Jubilation is winning the same match in the final hour having played a considerable portion of it with only nine fit men.
Australia were stretched to the maximum by injuries and a plucky touring team, but in finding a way to deliver a victory in Hobart they took a significant step in developing the belief that will be required for the tours of India and England that follow this summer. This was a result worth savouring, for after the travails of the series against South Africa, Michael Clarke's team were in need of some proof that they were progressing.
On the final day, Sri Lanka's opposition was less of an obstacle than the hosts' own doubts and fears, having seen the Adelaide Test slip away in very similar circumstances. The celebrations were all the more enthusiastic for the knowledge of how painful and costly it can be to draw a match that is there for the winning.
Such a conclusion seemed a long way distant when the hobbling captain Michael Clarke tossed the ball to Matthew Wade. Not since Rod Marsh shuffled in for two overs against Pakistan in the closing stages of a bore draw at the MCG in 1983 had an Australian gloveman been so laterally employed. Not since never had an Australian Test 'keeper been asked to try to break a pesky partnership in a match still well and truly alive.
That over drew plenty of raised eyebrows among the few spectators prepared to journey to Bellerive Oval on the final afternoon, but it also sent something of a message from Clarke to his bowlers. To that point, on a pitch offering generous assistance in the way of variable bounce, they had managed only two wickets in two sessions, albeit those of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, and Thilan Samaraweera remained in stony occupation alongside Angelo Mathews.
Impeded as he was by a hamstring strain, Clarke was unable to bowl himself, and so it was left to Peter Siddle to find the extra gear to tilt the match. As he had done so manfully in Adelaide, Siddle led the attack with bowling of intelligence as well as spirit, and in ripping out Samaraweera and Mathews after the interval finished the work he had done on the top order earlier in the day when dismissing Jayawardene and Sangakkara.
Sri Lanka still had four wickets in hand when Siddle, exhausted once more, had to give up possession of the ground's northern end. At this moment Australia were to be provided with encouragement that their investment in the future, via the inclusion of Mitchell Starc, was paying dividends. At 22, Starc is prodigiously talented and increasingly durable, but not yet capable of putting it all together for extended periods. His best spells to date - if they can be called that - have been short bursts of an over or three, befitting his outstanding returns in recent times as a Twenty20 bowler.
But he was to make a significant advance here, producing another hostile effort to account for Prasanna Jayawardene with a delivery that reared enough to take a glove into the slips cordon. Previously in this match he had been unable to follow up one wicket with another, delivering overs too generous given his potential to send down the sorts of offerings that no batsman appreciates. This time, he was able to sustain his speed and direction, clattering through the visitors' tail so swiftly that the match was won with more than 10 overs to spare - an unlikely prospect at tea.
"The boys learned a lot, that if we kept digging in, kept digging in, we did come close in Adelaide but just fell short, we knew if we could keep pushing right to the end that we could get on top," Siddle said. "From that lunch the other day, from then until now it's been outstanding, just the whole unit, everyone together, the process with a bowler down. It's credit to us, the way we've prepared, the way we've gone about it, and performed for the team to get the end result."
For Clarke, this was a vindication of his decision to stay out on the field despite his hamstring injury, marshalling the team with his usual verve, and overseeing the capture of a first Test victory of the home summer. His pre-match measure of the team's progress had more to do with how individuals fulfilled their roles than whether or not Sri Lanka were beaten, but the fact that the team was able to close out the match will help. He also reserved significant praise for his deputy Shane Watson, who may now lead Australia on Boxing Day. While he had only the wicket of Tillakaratne Dilshan to show for it, Watson's 27 overs were vital to sustaining the hosts' push for a win, and Clarke knew it.
"There's no doubt we learned, we've learned a lot from the South Africa series," Clarke said. "We've seen to compete against the best you have to be at your best for the whole five days, you can't afford to give a good opposition like South Africa or Sri Lanka a session, let alone a day, so I think we've learned that lesson. It's going to take some time for us to put into place areas of our game that we think need improvement. Today's a good start and this Test match is a good start. Having the extra bowler today compared to Adelaide played a big part, Watto bowled 27 overs, I would've loved those overs in Adelaide, whether that be through Patto or Watto.
"But I think our bowlers deserve a lot of credit. I think Starcy was outstanding once again, I think Watto did a magnificent job and so did Nathan Lyon. Their job is probably a bit underrated, but I thought the work they did in building pressure, bowling a lot of dot balls was fantastic."
Siddle deservedly took the match award, but it was Starc who claimed the final wicket, drawing a thin edge from Shaminda Eranga. The man who threw the ball skywards was none other than Wade, now reinstated in a far more familiar role than the one he had performed before tea. As the team converged in a joyous huddle, the substitute Jordan Silk and the hamstrung captain among them, they had the memory of Wade's over to remind them of how far they had come - from desperation to jubilation.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here