Close and cigar
Winning Test matches is always special, but close ones seem extra special. Last week's win in Guyana was very exciting for us in more ways than one. Apart from being a tense finish, it was our first Test win in the West Indies.
That we hadn't won there before is in part due to a scheduling anomaly. Sri Lanka have been playing Test cricket for 26 years now, but amazingly, Guyana was only our fifth Test in the West Indies. Hopefully the Future Tours Program will consign such irregularities to the past.
Nevertheless, we are excited at having completed our maiden win. We had lost both our previous series in 1997 and 2003 by a 0-1 margin. It is important that we win Test matches in all countries. In recent years we have placed a special emphasis on winning overseas. This win shows our Test cricket has continued to move in the right direction. We are not getting carried away, though. We know that we now have to finish off the series in Trinidad. We are also aware, without disrespect to the West Indies, that we are not playing a top-ranked team. So while we take encouragement, we keep our feet on the ground.
One of the most pleasing aspects of the Guyana win was that the conditions were stacked against our bowling West Indies out twice. The pitch was one of the slowest and flattest that I have ever played on. We had to adapt, we had to be creative, and we had to execute our gameplans patiently and precisely.
The victory was the result of a concentrated team effort, with different individuals putting their hands up at different times. Chaminda Vaas, quite rightly, was the Man of the Match, but there were plenty of other vital roles: the centuries from Malinda Warnapura and Mahela Jayawardene, Muttiah Muralitharan's perseverance, Thilan Thushara's manful comeback performance, and Rangana Herath, who went wicketless but played an important hand on the fifth morning.
At the start of the final day we knew that West Indies were unlikely to be able to chase down the target because of the slowness of the pitch. But we were also mindful that a good partnership could change that, and we planned to bowl as many maiden overs as possible during the morning. We wanted to get the run-rate down and try to force some mistakes.
Once we achieved that, it gave us a chance to attack during the afternoon. We then needed to start taking a few wickets to really build the pressure. Fortunately, Vaasy got Marlon Samuels and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, opening the door for us. We got early wickets in the final session too, but Chris Gayle and Jerome Taylor did a great job for West Indies. With the minutes ticking by, it was a tricky decision whether to take the new ball. We wanted to let Murali use the old ball for as long as possible, but it wasn't working and we finally took the new ball.
We were fortunate to be able to able to isolate Taylor at Vaasy's end. They were not rotating the strike and we wanted Vaasy to bowl as many balls as possible with the new cheery to Taylor. It didn't take too long for him to produce the right delivery to get an edge, and we were back in business.
Murali's catch at the end was the perfect finale. He must have been exhausted after bowling so many overs, but he ran backwards like a young puppy; his athleticism was remarkable. It showed, once again, just how hungry he remains and what a special cricketer he is.
Vaas' performance was exceptional. Just a few months ago he was dropped in Australia and there was lots of speculation as to which series will be his last. But he is a determined man, and after a strong comeback against England he used all his skill and experience here in what was a masterclass on how to bowl on a slow wicket. It constantly amazes me how he manages to perform so well on pitches that should, in theory, be graveyards for quick bowlers. This has been a recurring theme in his career. The secret could be that he knows exactly what he can do and can execute his gameplans precisely.
Having well thought-out strategies is one thing, implementing them quite another. Vaasy is able to implement his plans because he is incredibly accurate, able to land the ball where he wants, almost at will. All his wickets were very precise dismissals. Take the bouncer to Devon Smith, for example. The key to that was not speed but rather that he got the ball in exactly the right place to induce the top edge. His pace may have dropped, but he has shown that he can make up for that with his cunning.
Special mention must also be made of Warnapura. His batting was hugely encouraging. We need youngsters to stand up, and he did just that, carrying his form from the practice game into the Test. I was really impressed with the way he built his innings and also how he maintained his tempo throughout. Can he cut it at this level? I think he can. I think success in Test cricket is easier if you learn to work with what you have: you don't have to be stylish or play every shot in the book, you have to be effective. That means you must understand your game and have the confidence to implement your own gameplan. I sense Malinda knows his game pretty well, and that should help him be consistent.
It was disappointing to get out the way I did in the first innings. I should have gone on to make a big hundred, and I'll aim to remedy that in the next game. It was fun to keep in the second innings, but I was rusty and it was disappointing to concede 25 byes. But I did hold on to the catches - the most important thing.
We now have a few days to prepare for the second Test and we hope Prasanna Jayawardene will recover in time from his hamstring injury. Other than that, we are all in good shape and looking forward to a very important game.