A win to savour for Sri Lanka
The most endearing moment of Sri Lanka's historic first win in South Africa will be one that took place seconds after Rangana Herath was asked his first question in the post-match press conference. He took nine wickets to earn the man of the match award and spun Sri Lanka to their first Test victory since Muttiah Muralitharan retired 16 months ago. The question was how he felt about his role in Sri Lanka's victory.
"What I have to say is that it was a great team effort," said Herath, frowning to concentrate on his every word. "That's why we won against South Africa, that's why we are going to celebrate and that's why we are laughing."
To laugh is one thing but to emit shrieks of unadulterated joy is another. Teams do it when they win in situations that no-one, even themselves, believed that they could. They do it when they've made a point that people thought could not be proved, when they notch up a first that people imagined would not be achieved for years to come and when they've made a statement of intent that will be remembered as a turning point in their sporting history.
When Sri Lanka did it in Durban, they curved around a corner that may have as much significance as Castle Corner does to the average South African fan. They registered their ninth victory outside the subcontinent and beat a team that was expected to clean sweep them. So much so that the host broadcaster branded the tour on Twitter as the #noexcuses series, because they believed South Africa could not justify anything but a 3-0 win.
Before Sri Lanka arrived in South Africa, they were written off. When they arrived and performed without much peneteration in the tour match in Benoni, the line was smudged and when they lost in Centurion by an innings and 81 runs, they were erased right off the page.
Tillakaratne Dilshan said being spoken about disparagingly only served to motivate the team to perform in the opposite fashion. "We proved we are good," said Dilshan, with a streak of defiance in his voice. "I said at the start of the series that if we play our brand of cricket we can beat any team in any conditions and we did it."
Kingsmead did not present just any conditions. The pitch allowed for a more balanced contest between bat and ball than its predecessor at SuperSport Park. The quicks had early morning bounce, the batsmen had a flattening strip in the sun, the spinners had the rough and the few cracks and Test cricket had an opportunity to end the year on a high. "Centurion was only for the fast bowlers but this wicket was a 50-50 wicket for batsmen and bowlers so I think this was a great Test wicket," said Dilshan.
Sri Lanka were given a chance to compete with South Africa on more even terms and they did not stop at competing. After dismissing the hosts for 168 in the first innings, through the skill of Chanaka Welegedara and the guile of Herath, their until-now under-performing batting line-up gave them a lead that would require South Africa to break a world record to claim victory. Their attack, which was criticised for not being able to take 20 wickets, then dismissed South Africa a second time, presenting the team with victory with a day to spare.
South Africa's batsmen collapsed after lunch, losing five wickets for 45 runs. Two of those dismissals, the ones of Jacques Rudolph and Jacques Kallis, were via poor shots and Hashim Amla was run-out in a comedy of errors. But Ashwell Prince and Mark Boucher were the recipients of crafty deliveries. Dilhara Fernando removed Prince with a sharply rising delivery, similar to the one he bowled to Graeme Smith, and Herath had Boucher trapped lbw.
The left-arm spinner used the old-fashioned values of flight, turn and doggedness to claim his five-for. Even when it looked like Sri Lanka would drag the match into a fifth day when they appeared unable to remove one of AB de Villiers or Dale Steyn, Herath kept plugging away. He said he knew he would have to bowl a lot of overs and he did in miserly fashion. Although he credited a team effort for the victory, a large part of the thanks belonged to him.
While Herath was named man of the match, Dinesh Chandimal who scored twin fifties in his debut match, took three catches, effected a stumping and was involved in a run-out received some of the highest praise. "He was involved in two century partnerships," Dilshan said, referring to the first innings effort with Thilan Samaraweera and the second innings stand with Kumar Sangakkara. "He is one of the finest youngsters we have had. We gave him an opportunity and he grabbed it with both hands, not only batting but his keeping was also fantastic. He provided great support for the bowlers and the fielders and I firmly believe he is one of the best cricketers we have produced."
The one milestone in this match that was overshadowed was Mahela Jayawardene becoming the first Sri Lankan to score 10,000 Test runs. Dilshan said Chandimal, 22, may be able to do the same after the current crop have retired. "He can get to 10,000 runs in Test cricket," he said. "He handled things really well in the middle. He is learning quickly in Tests and one-dayers and I feel he is one of the greatest youngsters in Sri Lankan cricket." Chandimal is part of Sri Lanka's new beginning, a start that could be borne from the efforts in Durban.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent