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August 8, 2006
The finale to this series could not have been more tense, dramatic and gripping if it was scripted by Stephen King. The only predictable thing about the nerve-racking final day was its unpredictability. The Test match had ebbed and flowed throughout, refusing to reveal its winner until Lasith Malinga, so cool in an inferno, stroked an on-drive that Bradman would have been proud off, a scampered single that precipitated scenes of unconfined joy both in the Sri Lanka dressing-room and throughout the P Saravanamuttu Stadium.
At lunch, Sri Lanka appeared certain winners having inched their way to within touching distance of the finishing line. Mahela Jayawardene had played a flawless hand, utterly focused on each delivery and so relaxed and effortless in his strokeplay, no matter the huge burden resting on his shoulders as the last specialist batsman. If anything, despite being dropped on two, his 123 today was better than his 374 at the Sinhalese Sports Club, coming as it did in such fraught and desperate circumstances.
Nevertheless, just when it seemed impossible for him to make an error of judgement, he took an ill-fated gamble, skipping down the track to launch Nicky Boje over extra cover, an incredibly difficult stroke but one he normally plays with majestic simplicity. But this time he was deceived by the flight and caught off-balance. Herschelle Gibbs reacted in a flash to pouch the thin edge at slip. Suddenly, the tension, which had been easing, snowballed as Chaminda Vaas walked out to bat.
Vaas was the perfect man for the situation, vastly experienced and enjoying the best year of his life as a Test batsman, but memories flashed back to Asgiriya International Stadium in early 2004 when Sri Lanka, chasing an identical 352-run target, had self-destructed just when victory was within their grasp. Vaas, on that occasion, had let the red mist descend as he slogged wastefully into the hands of deep midwicket. This time, though, he could not be faulted as an edge that was so nearly the winning hit was snaffled acrobatically like a circus juggler by AB de Villiers in the slips.
When Muttiah Muralitharan walks to the crease it usually conjures one of two emotions depending on the circumstance: delight or dread. In this instance, with just four runs required, Sri Lankan supporters were squirming in their seats. After two airy swishes across the line he managed a straight drive for a couple. With one ball left and Farveez Maharoof playing such a cool hand at the other end, you'd have expected a respectful block. But he slogged wildly and was bowled. Sanath Jayasuriya's yelp of anguish from the balcony will have been replicated across the island.
However, Maharoof, once again showing an impressive resilience, did keep his mind with a straight-drive off Boje, tying the scores and safeguarding the series, the primary goal. After an animated mid-pitch discussion, Malinga finished it all off, breaking the hearts of a South Africa team that had fought themselves agonisingly close to a series-levelling victory. History will record it simply as a 2-0 victory and many will presume it was a trouncing. But it wasn't, far from it, it could not have been any closer.
South Africa will rue their dropped catches. They were two more misses this morning, both off Maharoof, the first a sharp stumping opportunity and then just a couple of balls later a fumbled bat-pad catch by Hashim Amla, his third spill of the innings. And if Makhaya Ntini, who received two-hourly ice treatment throughout the night, had been fit enough to take the ball then who knows what might have happened. As ever in Test cricket, so many ifs and buts.
A few minutes after firecrackers went off in celebration of the host's victory, a real blast rocked a southern suburb of Colombo. The car bomb killed at least one and maimed others, quickly putting the cricket, just a game, into sharp perspective. During difficult times this Sri Lankan cricket team has provided much joy for a nation that badly needs good news. Their cricket, especially their resilience, has been a revelation and it was no surprise that Ruphavahini, the national broadcaster, replayed the match highlights in the aftermath of the bomb, a soothing balm in a depressing time.
Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondentFeeds: Charlie Austin
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