Sri Lanka not quite there
The tree-lined ground at Kandy was the stage for some wonderful drama in the second Test, reaching its gripping peak this morning with a 27-run win for Australia. But the Asgiriya ground also felt a little like a laboratory, the match a chance to measure Sri Lanka against the standard Australia have set for the world.
Beating them requires polished skills and mental grit. You need top-notch cricketers who can also look the opposition in the eye without flinching. A dash of genius in your bowling helps too. Australia, like water against a dam wall, expose every weakness in the opposition. Probably India, under the lordly Sourav Ganguly, have come closest to finding the alchemist's blend of skill and steel.
Sri Lanka have certainly come a long way in a short time. Before their World Cup win in 1996, they were still being patronised as inadequates. Against the world champions here, they thrice looked to be going under; three times Sri Lanka fought back, showing skill and determination. But they, like most other sides, are not quite there in either department. This morning, presented with the chance to keep the series alive through victory, they flinched.
They began the last day needing 51 to win, with three wickets in hand. Australia began it with a plan: attack the junior batsman at the crease. So Chaminda Vaas, the best batsman left, faced a field spread to all corners. He was in good touch, soon rattling the boundary boards behind Jason Gillespie. But in the third over, he tried to launch Shane Warne into the palm trees behind midwicket and was caught. With four men on the leg-side boundary, it was a daft shot, a mug-punter's gamble. With Vaas went Sri Lanka's last real hope of victory.
So Sri Lanka came away empty-handed. Three times before today, the Australian machine, at times as relentless as a combine harvester, looked set to chew them up. On the second day, Australia looked on the brink of taking a demoralising first-innings lead, redeeming their own feckless batting. But Vaas punched back, making an aggressive but controlled 68 not out. And Murali, having gifted his wicket twice at Galle, proved as irritating as a persistent mosquito.
He was helped by some odd captaincy. Michael Kasprowicz, with four wickets in his pocket, was allowed to bowl an unusually long spell, in sapping heat. It smacked of the "Give-him-one-more-over-to-get-five" school of captaincy, which is not the Aussie way. And while Murali slogged like a demented woodchopper, Australia seemed to think they would get him any ball. They forgot Mike Brearley's prescription for troublesome tailenders - just keep running in hard. Vaas and Murali added 79, and Sri Lanka took a lead of 91.
Australia found their hard-nosed edge again on the third day. But as Damien Martyn ground on to the fourth-slowest hundred by an Australian, Sri Lanka took three wickets and no steps backwards. Murali again grabbed most wickets (nine in the match) but it was Vaas who caught the eye. He wasn't ostentatious, but he never quite did the same with two balls in a row. Sri Lanka's only failure was in skill, not toughness: during the innings Mahela Jayawardene dropped Martyn three times in the slips.
Helped by those blunders, Australia took a lead of 351 and apparently the momentum. At Galle, Sri Lanka had been broken as they languished in the field, their opponents adding run after run. Their collapse to 154 in the final innings there was a spineless effort. This time, they came out fighting. Sanath Jayasuriya was inspired, not intimidated, and made a brilliant 131 from 145 balls. It was flamboyant - all big drives and belting uppercuts - but it was also smart. By playing shots against the seamers, and using his feet against the spinners, he knocked the Aussie bowlers out of their comfort zone.
But the final verdict, as any Australian will tell you, is the one in the results column. And in this thrilling match, Sri Lanka fell just short.
Paul Coupar is assistant editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack.