Australia wrest mental high ground from Sri Lanka
In the approach to 2005 Ashes series, Ricky Ponting was pressed on that most Australian of cricketing concepts. "Mental disintegration?" Ponting said. "That's what it's all about really, trying to keep England under pressure from ball one of the series until the series ends. That's what our whole cricket theme, if you like, is based on."
It is not an outlook that is as closely associated with Michael Clarke's captaincy. His voice is a bit high, perhaps, and his hair too fashionably shorn for him to be cast in that Alan Border-Tubby Taylor-Steve Waugh mould. And Australia have not been so openly aggressive in this series as they were on past tours. Words have come now and then from the fast men, but even Sri Lanka's cricketers would have encountered that as far back as their school system. Yet, the "theme" Ponting outlined has never been distant.
Clarke's men have not lashed out at specific targets with their tongues, or been given to excessive chest beating when wickets and victories have come, but "from ball one of the series, until the series ends" they have beaten Sri Lanka back again and again, first in the mind, then on the scoreboard.
In comparison to questioning the fidelity of opposition players' spouses and launching expletive-riddled tirades on technique, Clarke's approach has almost been passive-aggressive. Twice in this series he has laid down the gauntlet by declaring the innings when nobody - not even the batsmen in the middle - could have suspected one was coming.
On the third day in Sydney, while the pitch remained fine for batting and Matthew Wade hurtled onward, Clarke's declaration defied logic. The match was not ripe enough yet for every minute and delivery to have become so valuable, but the arrogance in Clarke's action was unmistakable. Mark Waugh once told James Ormond "there's no way you're good enough to play for England, mate", in a sledge that is more famous for Ormond's response. In Sydney, Clarke told Sri Lanka, "We might have to bat last on a dry pitch, but there's no way you blokes are good enough to stretch us here." Latent intent. In the third session, Sri Lanka's middle order could not summon the resolve to thumb their noses at Clarke, like Ormond did with, "At least I'm the best cricketer in my family."
When Sri Lanka look back at this series, they will know that it is in the mind that they gave away most ground, particularly with the bat. Dimuth Karunaratne may have fallen to a good ball straight after tea, but Lahiru Thirimanne allowed Australia's squeeze to force an error, and he hooked a high ball that even the most seasoned batsman would have struggled to control. Thilan Samaraweera's jaw-dropping swipe across the line was more a result of baggage from previous psychological beatings on tour.
Extreme pressure has been found to drive men to insanity, and for a player whose game is built upon a mighty defence to play that stroke so early is not so far from madness. Angelo Mathews and Mahela Jayawardene were no better at defying the Australian vice, as they contrived a run out. Perhaps distracted, Jayawardene edged one to slip after having progressed so securely before the clatter at the other end.
It had seemed so promising for Sri Lanka when Karunaratne and Jayawardene were at the crease before tea. The ball raced off their blades as Australia sprayed it around, and with the deficit almost wiped and nine wickets remaining, an upset victory seemed a firm possibility. But when Australia regrouped at the break, as they have done after poor periods all through the series, Sri Lanka parted with the mental virtues that might have seen them through.
"When you play against Australia you can't go on the back foot," Karunaratne said at day's end. "After tea when the ball became old, they started to do various things with the ball. They reverse swung it, changed their pace and bowled variations. They also bowled a very good line and made it tight. We made lots of mistakes and that's what happened."
But even beyond the batting, Australia seem much more aware of the effect of a positive outlook, and they endeavour to keep spirits high and minds focused at every stage of a match. Sri Lanka's pace attack is far less experienced than the hosts', and as such, likely more prone to self-doubt. Yet, when a bowler is carted for boundaries, there is nary a word of encouragement, or a reassuring pat on the behind; whereas when Karunaratne had his way with Australia's quicks in the second session, three or four bowlers would rush to affirm their mate. There's something Spartan in all of that, and Sri Lanka were feeble and flat in comparison.
There is always room for a "miracle" as defined by the sports journalist's lexicon, but 87 ahead, seven down and two bunnies to come is not a match situation that bodes well for the visitors. Mahela Jayawardene played his last Test innings in Australia today, as did Thilan Samaraweera and Tillakaratne Dilshan. Kumar Sangakkara, in his whites, has already bid Australia goodbye. Many have spoken of the "talent cliff" Sri Lanka face when that quartet depart, but those who have followed Thirimanne, Karunaratne, Mathews and Chandimal will know that it is not as bleak as all that.
Sri Lanka can only hope that when the youngsters return to Australia, they will not only have fostered better habits and forged more muscular techniques, they will also have acquired the fortitude that will see them strike harder when stricken, shove before being shoved and scream defiant bloody murder at an opposition that would have their spirit silenced.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here