'We choked them really nicely' - Jayasuriya
Sanath Jayasuriya believes Sri Lanka's historic win over South Africa in Durban could rival their triumph over England at The Oval 13 years ago as the country's most significant victory outside the subcontinent. Jayasuriya, the former Sri Lanka captain, scored a sensational double-hundred while Muttiah Muralitharan took 16 wickets in that match, which was achieved under the captaincy of Arjuna Ranatunga. The Kingsmead win was Sri Lanka's first since Muralitharan retired 16 months ago and gave Tillakaratne Dilshan his first success as captain.
"This win is very important because of all these dramas the cricketers have gone through," a delighted Jayasuiya told ESPNcricinfo. "The team has not been doing well and they have had some administrative problems and mentally, they were quite down. They have done a very good thing now and they are on a high."
Russell Arnold, who was in Sri Lanka's squad for the 1998 England tour, told ESPNcricinfo in his post-match analysis he regarded the South African success as even sweeter than the win over England because of the current state of the team. With two of their bowling stalwarts, Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas, retired and their impressive batting line-up, which includes Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, constantly under-performing in the last six months, Arnold said Sri Lanka's performance in Durban defied belief. No-one, not even Arnold, thought they would be able to compete and challenge South Africa on home soil.
Sri Lanka were shot out for 180 and 150 in the first Test in Centurion and Jayasuriya said their failure to adapt to conditions was worrying, but not insurmountable. On a less hostile surface, which allowed for a more even contest between bat and ball, it was South Africa who looked unable to adjust. Sri Lanka boasted two hundreds in the match, having only had one of their countrymen score a century in South Africa before, as both Thilan Samaraweera and Sangakkara achieved milestones.
"It was exactly what I said before. We needed partnerships and one of the top six to get a hundred. That was the key," Jayasuriya said, "Once we were able to put on more than 300, it gives the bowlers something to work with." Sri Lanka scored 338 in the first innings, thanks to Samaraweera's efforts and a crucial partnership with debutant wicketkeeper Dinesh Chandimal.
The bowlers made use of the uneven bounce and turn out of the rough to run through South Africa for 168 and then Sangakkara returned to form with a century that took the match away from the hosts. Sangakkara had scores of 1, 2 and 0 in his previous three innings and was dropped on 3 in Durban, something which Jayasuriya said would have been his signal to end his barren patch. "Any batsman will hurt a lot after going through a bad patch," said Jayasuriya. "But he got a chance and capitalised on it. When Sanga gets a start, he goes on to make big runs."
Chandimal also featured in a century stand in the second innings, with Sangakkara, to cap off a solid maiden Test. "I am very happy for him," said Jayasuriya. "The selectors gave him an opportunity and he used it well."
Collectively, as Arnold said, rather than through a handful of performances from top players, Sri Lanka preyed on South Africa's weaknesses - which ranged from tentativeness against a disciplined attack to an incurable mindset, stuck in the three previous defeats they have sunk to in Durban. It was this mental aspect that Jayasuriya said opened a crack for Sri Lanka and they did well not to waste it.
"We choked them really nicely," Jayasuriya said, using a word that will no doubt cause the South African squad to bristle. "We've seen with their history when it comes to crunch situations they don't do well."
Jayasuriya expects South Africa to make the home advantage count in the decider in Cape Town, which starts on Tuesday. "They won't want a flat wicket, so they will probably prepare something with pace and bounce," he said. However, the Newlands pitch is the surface which best accommodates spin, which will be welcome news for Rangana Herath and Sri Lanka's batsmen, who will likely feel a little more at home in South Africa now.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent