Pakistan v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Abu Dhabi, 4th day January 3, 2014

Sri Lanka fans have reasons to smile

If Sri Lanka's young cricketers can build on Friday's gains, perhaps in years to come fans will look upon this match not simply as Angelo Mathews' coming of age, but as the turn of an era

It hasn't been an easy few years for fans of Sri Lanka's cricket. Major finals losses have left four deep gashes on the nation's psyche. Mention the last World Cup or World T20 in Colombo or Kandy, and you begin to discover wounds that are still raw. Some have turned off completely - such is the fickleness of Sri Lanka fans who have largely maintained some perspective on cricket. Others have cooled their passions until the side rises again.

As they broke Pakistan's siege, ducked and weaved around opposition blows, then took the high ground for themselves in Abu Dhabi, the team can only hope the nation was watching today.

Some context might help better understand the magnitude of what Sri Lanka achieved on the fourth day. That this is their first Test since March, and the first against a top-eight nation since close to a year is well known. Mindblowingly, they have not had a first-class practice match in the Gulf either. It is a young captain's first major Test assignment after ten months in which he has drawn considerable ire, and whose leadership remained a point of debate. They are playing at a venue where Pakistan felled cricket's top team six weeks ago, and one in which they have not lost, small though that sample size is.

As mitigating factors, the docility of the surface must be put forward first. Live grass still binds it together, much to Saeed Ajmal's chagrin. He has played on unresponsive surfaces before, however, but never in his career has he completed 42 overs without a wicket. In blunting him so far, Sri Lanka have already secured a psychological edge that may prove vital to the series' eventual unfolding.

Pakistan's pace attack also lacks the edge it had against South Africa. Mohammed Irfan is with the team, but is out through injury. None of the three playing seam bowlers have more than 15 Tests' experience. Still, they have bowled earnest lines, and testing lengths, all at sharp pace. On another day, against less resolute batting, Rahat Ali might have had a five-for. Junaid Khan might have completed his first ten-wicket haul.

So how heartening for Sri Lanka then, that with their two batting juggernauts already dismissed last evening, they lost only one wicket in the day? The young Sri Lanka players had been implored by their public to step up, fall in, show some courage. But in a year crammed with ODIs, so much talk of talent and future-proofing rang hollow while Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan bore the team's burden, misfiring middle-order and all.

Dinesh Chandimal and Angelo Mathews had played impressive support innings before, but masters of their own destiny now, they were nobody's sidekicks. The morning session had been treacherous on each of the first three days, and Pakistan bowled like they knew it. Junaid lived short-of-a-length, angling in, wobbling it away. Rahat bowled more stump-to-stump, full, teasing, accurate. Bilawal Bhatti manned the heavy weapons - bouncers at the ribs and the throat; a yorker now and then, just to check how closely the batsmen were watching.

"We had the fact that wickets had fallen early on in our minds," Chandimal said. "So we batted as tightly as we could in that first session, and we knew that if we survived there, we could pull the game back. Angelo and I handled the situation well."

After Sri Lanka had stared them down for an hour, the quicks received a second new ball, 18.3 overs into the day. They let loose again, three slips, short-leg, man out for the hook, the works. Chandimal proved once more he is a born Test batsman, floating through the barrage unscathed to hit a fifth fifty - he has only failed to reach that milestone in two of nine Tests. Mathews took a bruising, but thanks to a little luck, his outside edge did not - at least not enough of one to cost his team. Captain and vice-captain battled and batted, occasionally hitting high notes in harmony, but often strumming steadily, one leading, the other holding rhythm, then the reverse.

It was such music to the Sri Lanka fans in the stadium that they added their voices to the melody in return. As the evening approached and the match pivoted for the visitors, a crowd of Sri Lankans had acquired the nerve to mimic the chant they had heard with vigour from Pakistan supporters on the first two days. Joyful calls of Sri Lanka jeetega (Sri Lanka will win) amused some and annoyed others.

"We talked about a lot of things in the middle. Sometimes it was hard for me to play certain bowlers, sometimes it was tough for Angelo," Chandimal said. "So we talked about who should be scoring more runs at this time, and who should be more positive against which bowler. That's how we built our partnership."

Chandimal hooked on impulse and fell 11 short of what would have been his best Test hundred yet, but Mathews' steel did not run out. He had faced the first ball of the day on 0, and defended the last on 116. In between, he had faced 47 overs on his own. It is a match that could prove his making in Tests, because to sear 91 on the first day in bold riposte, then slow-cook a ton on the fourth, is a staggering feat that has unveiled unsuspected depth and dynamism to his game.

If Sri Lanka's young cricketers can build on Friday's gains, perhaps in years to come fans will look upon this match not simply as Mathews' coming of age, but as the turn of an era. The seeds of change were sown in Sydney a year ago, when three young batsmen defied the hosts. Sri Lanka had withered after Murali, and spent a year tending shoots. Soon, fans can hope, whatever happens on the last day here, it will be time for a harvest.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on January 4, 2014, 15:25 GMT

    Angelo Matthews played a captains knock. Thats what as fans we want to see. Our captain leading by Example. Unlike Pakistan , Sri Lanka's bowling line is very limited when it comes to resources. But once again well played. I thought the temperament and urgency shown by the Sri Lankan test team was brave. This was a match meant for Sri Lanka to loose, but turning it out for a draw and giving the team an outside chance to win, Take a bow. Well done , well played and please have this composure carried out to next two games as well.

  • Janaka on January 4, 2014, 12:28 GMT

    Good to see youngsters getting better. This is why Sri Lanka should play a Test match at least every 3 months. I want to see Lahiru and Kithruwan in Tests. It should have been Tharanga in Tests, but they didn't give him the opportunity. Shaminda is doing really well, so as Lakmal. Good that Sri Lankans show that they are "capable" :P At least it will boost their morale. Still a long way to go though! Kithruwan is a great prospect for Sri Lanka, and Lahiru had to play a different innings that he was not used to, so he failed severely. This is what happened to Tharanga. It's not possible to give everyone the chance. Looking at the next game's pitch, I would like to see Kithruwan and Lahiru in.

  • andrews on January 4, 2014, 7:30 GMT

    Sri lankan fans would have reason to smile if there was a serious attempt madeto attain victory here. The time for harvest is right now, and it is astonishing that so little effort has been made to push the game along and put pressure on Pakistan late on the 4th day and early on the 5th day. It reminds me of Jayawardene's pathetic comment: 'we won the series didn't we' when criticized about the lack of effort to win the final Test against Pakistan at Pallekelle in 2011. Why, with a lead of well over 200 and 5 wickets in hand, are Mathews and especially Prasanna Jayawardene scoring at such a slow rate. There will be no honor in a favorable draw here.

  • Nevin on January 4, 2014, 6:15 GMT

    cricket needs the minnow's performing well

  • Johann on January 4, 2014, 4:30 GMT

    Aha..thats something to hype him as 'legend' for my fellow SL fans. Scoring hundred on a flat track against the tired bowlers is not great. But based on the fact that he scored only 1 hundred so far, it is a great achievement!

  • Nival on January 4, 2014, 3:49 GMT

    All this, DESPITE the administration and a system in shambles.. that makes this achievement all the more remarkable! Bayliss said something similar on his departure!

  • Dummy4 on January 4, 2014, 2:29 GMT

    To come out show some gut after one of the best middle order player have retired is outstanding. Test cricket at its very best. If this is the turn of the era, we could be in for some good times. But will we have enough test cricket in the future for these boys to become truly the greats they are destined to be is another matter and that is something SL fans are so desperately looking for an answer.

  • Dummy4 on January 4, 2014, 2:20 GMT

    Andrew swings from one end to another with his writing. "Chandimal was born to play Test cricket" Yeah right! Mathews played exceptionally well and deserves all the credit. Chandimal and Thirimanne may have fooled the likes of Andrew but have a long, long way to go before they can even begin to live up to the hype they that surrounds them. Both Chandi and Thiri are more of the Mahela Jayawardena mode by that I mean blessed with natural talent but weak mentally and technically (especially in overseas conditions and when the going gets tough) But I doubt either will even become half the batsman that Mahela is. If either wants to become World class they have to become more like Sri Lanka's best test batsman of all time, Kumar Sangakkara; mentally strong as a rock, technically tight as well and in short an all surface player.

  • $$ milind on January 4, 2014, 1:00 GMT

    Angelo Mathews really very high potential player, alongside Chandimal & Thirimanne Sri Lanka really has a good test future. Only if they can find a Vaas type pacer - they could settle well into a test outfit.

  • Madu on January 3, 2014, 21:29 GMT

    Well summing up by Andrew.Lets hope that this is the begining of a new era in SL test cricket. A good sign to see younger players starting step up to the battle front. If they can manage the performances consistently then the future looks bright. And ofcourse the SL fans are always around to give that extra push to their Lions.

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