Sri Lanka get used to life without legends
It was a series decided in three sessions. Not to take any credit away from Sri Lanka, but Pakistan lost the series in those three sessions, their first defeat in Sri Lanka. Nineteen sessions were played in the first two Tests, and Pakistan won 12 of them. Sri Lanka capitalised on the other sessions in a spectacular manner because they hung in when Pakistan did well. They were never quite blown away like Pakistan. In little over three of those fatal seven sessions, Pakistan lost 27 wickets for 171 runs, which is why they didn't deserve to win the series.
Those sessions, though, shouldn't detract from the big picture in the series, which looks pretty good for Sri Lanka. For the last year or two they would have sensed a harsh reality lurking around the corner: that Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas won't be around forever. One policy decision and one freak injury suddenly brought them face to face with the truth.
Vaas was dropped, and Murali hurt his knee on the eve of the first Test. To have grappled with the question is one thing, to suddenly meet such a situation is quite another. For the last 15 years or so, Sri Lankan cricket has been impossible to imagine without Vaas and Murali. The last time Sri Lanka beat a proper Test opposition with both of them missing was in December 1986, long before they had made debuts. Before the start of the series, Murali and Vaas had taken 1119 wickets between them; wickets taken by all the other Sri Lankan bowlers in all their Test history added up to 1488.
Add to it that the new leader of the attack, Ajantha Mendis, looked largely ineffective and had to be dropped for the final Test. The way Nuwan Kulasekara and Thilan Thushara repaid the faith invested in them will reassure the Sri Lanka management. Thushara's spell on the final morning of the Galle Test didn't feature a single loose ball, the pressure he created was relentless and his contribution in that win was bigger than just the two wickets he took. Kulasekara was brilliant throughout. He doesn't have the persona of a menacing fast bowler, but he showed how much he has improved skillswise in the last year. The inswinger swung big, with the newly acquired straighter one making it even more dangerous.
Vaas got a farewell Test at the SSC. He was fittingly given a memento and a million rupees at the post-series presentation for his great service to Sri Lanka and world cricket. Moments later, Kulasekara received the Man-of-the-Series award for his 17 wickets. There couldn't have been a moment more indicative of which way Sri Lanka cricket is headed.
Rangana Herath was the surprise weapon, a shrewd choice of a replacement for Murali. Sri Lanka obviously knew Herath had done well against Pakistan, who had also struggled against other left-arm spinners Monty Panesar and Paul Harris. Herath took with both hands perhaps the only opportunity he would get, bowling a wise mix of flighted orthodox spin and the arm balls. Between them the three took 44 wickets, and Murali and Vaas were not even discussed during the series.
Sri Lanka also gambled on the wicketkeeping front, getting Tillakaratne Dilshan to step in for the injured Prasanna Jayawardene. The move resulted in better balance, and a broken finger for Dilshan, but hopefully Jayawardene will take his place back after this series. He is the best wicketkeeper in the world today, and Test cricket deserves those skills.
Sri Lanka were led by a sharp new captain, Kumar Sangakkara. He was bold and decisive in his moves off the field, and instinctive and ahead of Pakistan on it. He surprised Pakistan by starting the fourth day of the Galle Test, on a moist pitch, with a spinner. At P Sara Oval, he threw the second new ball to Herath, claiming rich dividends with both decisions.
Most importantly Sri Lanka were alert whenever Pakistan slipped up. And they slipped up Pakistan big time. They would be correct in their own right if they think they lost the series, and were not beaten. Cynics will scoff at the use of the term yet again, but it's a team rebuilding itself. It would perhaps be too simplistic to be harsh on them. They had four debutants, and the others were playing proper Test cricket for the first time in two years (the pitches in the earlier series at home hardly tested their batsmen).
Still it was frustrating to watch them throw it away so spectacularly. If an outsider saw it thus, one can only imagine how gutted the team would have felt. They played good Test cricket for long periods of time, showing Test cricket was worse off without them, but when they were bad they were really bad. How different and way more intense the last day of the series would have been had Pakistan concentrated for another one hour in either of the first two Tests, and gone into the final match with the series still alive.
There were positives to be taken for them. Seventeen-year-old Mohammad Aamer had a promising start to his Test career too; their pace attack now looks in good health, with Mohammad Asif slowly coming back to fitness. Saeed Ajmal is now competition for Danish Kaneria. The latter was more urgent and aggressive when he finally got a Test, the third. Fawad Alam's fighting spirit, scoring a century on Test debut while opening for the first time in first-class cricket, was one of the beautiful stories of the series. Mohammad Yousuf made a successful return to Test cricket, too, getting his 25th century on comeback.
The drama, the sharp turns, the collapses, this series had aplenty. But both teams will also agree that the general quality of cricket was not the best. The pitch in Galle tested the batsmen with the moisture, but P Sara Oval and SSC laid out good batting pitches and didn't merit first-innings scores of 90, 240, 299 and 233. The collapses were not Pakistan's exclusive prerogative, Sri Lanka went from 177 for 3 to 240 all out at P Sara. The organisers may as well have given away seat belts to those who came to watch. Overall these were three entertaining Test matches in three weeks, which can't be so bad for Test cricket in the current climate.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo