Draw takes shine off Sri Lanka victory
When Kumar Sangakkara and Misbah-ul-Haq shook hands with just under an hour left on the fifth day in Pallekele, the disbelief was palpable. Sri Lanka were sitting safe on a 1-0 series lead and needed 76 off a minimum of nine overs to make a mockery of Misbah's declaration. It wasn't unattainable by any means. The hosts had six wickets in hand, with a well-set Sangakkara on 74, and were batting on a track that had flattened out considerably after the first day. Then everyone, unexpectedly, had an early evening off. The finality to it all didn't seem right. ESPNcricinfo's commentary feedback was flooded with mails after the game, which questioned Sri Lanka's reluctance to push for a win. Criticism might come in from all corners, but it can't be denied that Sri Lanka attained what they set out to do at the start of the series. They were starved of a Test series win, home and away, with the last one coming in August 2009. The wait finally ended.
There were murmurs, prior to this win, that the hangover of Muttiah Muralitharan's retirement had not ended. The facts supported that. After Murali called it a day two years ago, Sri Lanka went winless over the next six Test series. In that period, the captaincy changed hands from Sangakkara, to Tillakaratne Dilshan and then to Mahela Jayawardene for a second stint. Sangakkara gave it up after the 2011 World Cup, Dilshan had to take over the leadership because, seemingly, nobody else wanted it. After he gave it up, Jayawardene was the only logical choice. Former captains and commentators rate him among the most astute captains in current cricket. Taking over after the South Africa tour last year, Jayawardene failed to register a win against England, Sri Lanka drawing the home series 1-1 in March. Now, he made sure he achieved that elusive win against Pakistan, but critics will always argue that his team should have finished better.
Sri Lanka's decision to not go after the win was similar to MS Dhoni's perplexing move last year in the Dominica Test against West Indies, when play was called off with India needing 86 off 90 balls with seven wickets in hand to seal a 2-0 series win. That flat ending took the gloss away from India's 1-0 win.
That even Pakistan captain Misbah was caught off guard by early finish in this Test was telling. "Chasing 270 in 71 overs is not an easy task, but after the start [Sri Lanka got] and being 150 for 2, and when you need less than four an over, that was the time they could have taken the game away from us," Misbah said. "I was really surprised they put the shutters down and never tried to go for the runs. I don't know what happened … the way the wicket was behaving, scoring was really easy on it, they could have gone for the target."
Jayawardene, though, didn't look back at the scoreline of 1-0 with any regrets. "I think it's fair to say that the attitude was to win," Jayawardene said. "I think we cruised until the last hour and half. But when I got out, we said 'no, we'll close shop'. We said that it's probably not worth it, because they had a very negative field set, cramming our guys. [We said] let's not take too many risks at the end because we're one up in the series."
He said chasing 270 in 71 overs was always going to be tricky, even on a batting track. "Unfortunately, we couldn't pick up early wickets this morning. It would have been much easier for us chasing 220; 270 is always going to be tough but I thought the boys batted really well," he said. "They came on the fourth innings against a quality attack and they put us in a position to win a Test."
Not for the first time, Jayawardene brought up a question asked at the start of the tour, in May, about Sri Lanka going into the series as "underdogs". "Even in the one-dayers, no one gave us a chance. I remember in the first press conference someone asked about a 4-1 win for Pakistan," Jayawardene said. "But to come out winning the one-dayers and Test series, a lot of credit should go to the boys."
It may have felt good to put it across on the field, but Sri Lanka will know their biggest challenge ahead is maintaining a level of consistency at home. For now, they can savour this win against an opposition which, on the contrary, hadn't experienced a Test series defeat in close to two years.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo