Persistence and some gambling work wonders
Let's put this Sri Lankan win into perspective. Coming into this match, they had won three Tests in the absence of Muttiah Muralitharan since he made his debut. Coming into this Test Chaminda Vaas was overlooked, sparking rumours about the end of his Test career. Lasith Malinga was not deemed to be physically fit enough for five straight days of cricket. Dilhara Fernando had been his usual inconsistent self. That left a six-Test old Ajantha Mendis as the No. 1 bowler in what was arguably the most inexperienced attack Sri Lanka have fielded in a long time.
During this Test their batting led Kumar Sangakkara to suggest Sri Lanka needed to know the whereabouts of their off stumps better, get the mindsets right, and also try to read what a bowler was trying to do. Between them the most senior players in the team, Mahela Jayawardene and Sangakkara, managed 53 runs in four innings. Even Mendis was negotiated in the first innings without incident and in the second managed 2 for 27.
Yet Sri Lanka managed to win the Test. One freak session of exceptional bowling and Pakistan's nerves aside, that they had managed to compete thus far was down to the efforts of three inexperienced Test bowlers.
In the case of Nuwan Kulasekara and Thilan Thushara this was a repaying of the faith Sri Lanka have shown in them over the last couple of years. In the case of Rangana Herath, it was the hunger to cash in on the smallest of opportunity the two special incumbent spinners provided him.
"It is an inexperienced attack, but also a fresh attack," said Sangakkara. "The lack of experience is made up for by enthusiasm, and a real hunger to do well and stay in the side. It showed through all the guys. When opportunities are presented, a lot of people try to grab them and try too hard to do well, but our guys played quite well, and they managed to hold their disciplines."
Had the team waited any longer to call Herath from the minor counties in England, he would have gone to the gym, and who knows if he would have been able to make it here seeing the calls an hour or two later. It was a decision that acknowledged Herath as the third-best Test spinner in the country, no matter his age. It also had to do with the tendency of Pakistan to falter against left-arm spin.
Herath's introduction didn't come until the 48th over of Pakistan's first innings and he should have had Mohammad Yousuf, except the umpire Daryl Harper failed to spot an faint edge on a bat-pad appeal. But Herath had his man in the second, and how. Sangakkara started the fourth morning by gambling with Herath and it paid off first ball, with the left-armer dismissing Yousuf lbw. It was the fourth time Herath had dismissed Yousuf - he used to be called Yousuf Youhana in another time, but still fell to Herath thrice in two matches - and third lbw dismissal. Herath has made Yousuf into his bunny. And he was exactly what Sangakkara opted for, a gamble, having been called up from England hours before the match (although it showed in his bowling that he had been away from limited-overs cricket).
Kulasekara and Thushara, though, were anything but a gamble. Kulasekara, especially, has been persisted with ahead of a great fast bowler and other flashier ones. Thushara, too, has been identified as a prospect for the long term.
The improvement Kulasekara has made from last year when India toured here was obvious. Then he was just a line-and-length bowler, bringing the new ball in to the batsmen. His four wickets in the first innings, which kept the deficit down to 50, were all down to the doubt the away-going deliveries created. "I practiced to straighten the ball and it proved beneficial today," he said. "I worked on my bowling with the coaching staff and fast bowling coaches Anusha Samaranayake and Prabath Nissanka. I think I have also increased my pace slightly."
Thushara's spell today deserved to be a match-winning effort. Although it could have had to do with a helpful pitch, he moved the ball both ways. The natural inswinger proved lethal when mixed with deliveries that went away. Thushara hardly bowled a loose delivery, beating the batsmen almost every time he bowled. His eight overs went for 12 runs, included the wickets of Shoaib Malik and Kamran Akmal, and also led to the run-out of Misbah-ul-Haq. Improvement in Thushara's bowling showed over the two innings, in the discipline and in thinking batsmen out. Sometimes you grow years' worth in one Test; Thushara would hope this is that match.
That this win came through three largely uncelebrated players has to be the most pleasing aspect for the team, especially since they now have to realise Murali won't be for ever. "We have got to, at some time or the other, come to terms with the fact that we can't always have the legends winning the matches for us," said Sangakkara. "It happens to every team, we move on.
"You know things Murali and Vaasy have done, especially as a team, it's going to be very hard for anyone to come and match those performances. I think there are lots of people on the right track, maybe they won't reach the same standing as those two, but they will still win us a lot of games."
This game was one of them.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo