July 3, 2014

Sri Lanka's triumph of attitude

They won in England by playing tough, bloody-minded cricket, refusing to take a backward step, on or off the pitch

Sri Lanka's seamers outbowled their English counterparts over the two Tests © Getty Images

What a battle. What an epic struggle. This was bare-knuckle stuff. For ten days and 30 sessions, two teams hammered at each other. The triumph, in the last few minutes of a three-week contest, demonstrated once again that nothing has the capacity to deliver drama and tension like the slow burn of Test cricket. This historic Test series victory may in the long run be of more significance to Sri Lanka than the World T20 victory in Bangladesh. The win proved they can succeed outside Asia in the most important format of the game.

Sri Lanka won by playing tough, bloody-minded cricket, refusing to take a backward step, on or off the pitch. Their attitude alone is worthy of celebration. The tone was set by the captain. Angelo Mathews demonstrated grace under fire in dealing with the controversies around Jos Buttler's dismissal and Sachithra Senanayake's action. If anything, those controversies strengthened his and the team's resolve. Mathews was also willing to mix it with his opponents, in the vanguard of verbal salvos fired at Joe Root during the final innings at Headingley.

Importantly, he was able to take it as well as dish it out, compiling a composed 42 runs in the final ODI, when every Englishman and his dog was baying for his head.

There is a great deal more to Mathews than bug-eyed belligerence. A young man with vastly more senior lieutenants, Mathews led the team with unflappable calm and unyielding conviction. If the two teams could only be separated in the final few minutes of the series, the fortunes of the respective captains could not have been more different. Mathews out-captained his more experienced counterpart, rotating his bowlers in that series-defining final session with inventiveness utterly beyond poor Alastair Cook. With bat and ball, Mathews was magnificent. His 160 in the second innings was one of the great captain's knocks, an object lesson in shot selection and controlled destruction (if not in running between the wickets). He also took four first-innings wickets, crucial to keeping Sri Lanka in the game. It was boy's own stuff, outdone only by the firework finish supplied by Shaminda Eranga.

Throughout the team, in every department, Sri Lanka demonstrated a capacity for the fight. It seems to have become inculcated in the team culture. The current crop of Sri Lankan cricketers expects to be competitive whenever they step on the field. This self-belief started, of course, with Arjuna Ranatunga, who added grit and fight and uncompromising cussedness to a team of talented amateurs. From Rangana Herath's three-hour vigil for the eighth-wicket partnership, to Nuwan Pradeep's last-over defiance, and Eranga's miracle delivery, Sri Lankans displayed what the Australians call ticker.

The two senior citizens contributed mightily, both to performance and attitude. Kumar Sangakkara, with his acerbic sledging and gimlet-eyed combativeness, has always been an irritant to opponents. He finished with a series-topping 342 runs at an average of 85.50. Mahela Jayawardene, the modern maestro of silken strokeplay, presents a more genteel image. But deep within him lies a core of steel. If Michael Holding was "Whispering Death", Mahela is the softly spoken assassin. His press conference after the fourth day at Headingley was a masterclass in stealth warfare. In his quiet, understated way, he fired barbs laced with sweet poison at Cook and the England team, who were, he said, not up to it under pressure.

That Mahela, of all people, put his boot on Cook's throat when the English captain was so obviously down hinted at the Sri Lankan team's displeasure. They were riled by the controversies during the ODI series, not least Cook's petulance, and at the reduction of the series to two Tests. They responded by fighting, with the bat at Lord's where they battled to the game's dying breath for a draw, and with everything they had at Headingley. The fighting spirit was best exemplified by the seam bowlers. Derided as a county attack before the series started, they replied by teaching the English seamers how to bowl in their own conditions.

Lamenting the series loss, Cook stated England had won eight out of the ten days, which misses the point by a country mile. Crucially, in the pressure moments that define Test matches, Sri Lanka were more desperate, more determined, better equipped to handle the pressure. An unruffled commander, battle-hardened veterans, ambitious youngsters, a home-grown coaching set-up, fired-up bowlers, all these were important ingredients in Sri Lanka's win. But the most important factor that allowed a Sri Lankan unit, individually and collectively, to outperform their hosts, was heart.

Janaka Malwatta is a poet, doctor and cricket lover who lives in Brisbane. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on July 8, 2014, 14:37 GMT

    It needs hell of a character to produce such an innings and then leading the team to a unthinkable victory under immense pressure of loosing the test along with series, heil Methews..!!

  • Hema on July 6, 2014, 1:51 GMT

    Beautiful piece of writing eloquently phrased. Short and sweet, amply credits where credit is due. I totally agree that the series win in England is worth two world cup wins. Every cricket lover would admire the praise given to the Sri Lankan team. They went as underdogs and came out concurring what could not be concurred amidst all odds - adverse weather conditions and unfamiliar pitches etc. Let us congratulate the Sri lanka Cricket Team for its achievement and the writer for his presentation so well done- a treat ton read.

  • siddhartha on July 5, 2014, 16:21 GMT

    all i can say is Matthews and Sanga have activated "god mode"

  • Abhishek on July 4, 2014, 19:03 GMT

    This must rank as Srilanka's greatest triumph. The article is a spot on representation of exactly how things transpired. Everyone including the seniors, the young ones and the especially captain played their part. Special credit to Mathews' Headingly effort as well- a match winning innings by a captain in the second innings of an away test is indeed rare.

  • xxxxx on July 4, 2014, 16:56 GMT

    Some will try and explain away these great Lankan wins in all three formats to luck. I, however, agree with the author and appreciate the numerous and significant obstacles that this champion Lankan team have faced and overcome.

    Champions play with heart as well as skill and make a habit of prevailing against adversity, winning the key moments and making their own luck as this very special group of Lankans has done. Jos Buttler in the ODIs (let's not mention the run-out) and Moeen Ali in Tests also played this way and deserve praise.

    The entire Lankan team utterly bristled with commitment, fight and a champion's attitude and I cannot praise them highly enough,

  • Mansoor on July 4, 2014, 16:40 GMT

    Had Anderson survived those last two balls, all the SL miracles would have vanished into smoke- Matthews would have been a failed marshal with defeated troupes, who couldn't convert a simple winning position into glory. All this garbage that is now being smacked at Cook would have been Matthews'- even his act of affirming Butler's runout would now have turned into one of a miserable loser rather than 'grace under fire' - Oh Anderson what did you do?

  • Cricinfouser on July 4, 2014, 10:08 GMT

    Sri Lanka performed as they did because they have some talented cricketers. The fact that the author attributes the series win to petty and in most cases ill founded grudges suggests he has an agenda unrelated to a game of cricket.

    England played a two test series in Sri Lanka in 2012. This one was the same length, yet the author glosses over this rather obvious point and implies that the Sri Lankan team shares his disinterest in the facts. Whatever Jayawardene's intentions in his press conference, the fact remains that England clearly were 'up to it under pressure' - they batted through 88.4 overs of the final day, despite having only 5 wickets left. 'Every Englishman and his dog was baying for his (Matthews') head' - utter nonsense.

    Sri Lanka were the deserved winners of an excellent series, decided by the small margins which give the game its enduring fascination. It is sad that a self proclaimed 'cricket lover' should miss the point so spectacularly.

  • Android on July 3, 2014, 6:18 GMT

    The first article which actually gave the SL players the credit due for their performances.

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