'Got a move on again in Tests' - Mathews
When Angelo Mathews was made captain in February 2013, Sri Lanka's Test cricket had been at a low ebb. Fresh from the 0-3 hammering in Australia, which included a three-day drubbing in their first Boxing Day Test in 17 years, Mathews' target of becoming a top-three Test nation seemed ambitious.
In his first 10 months at the helm, he had to tackle only two Tests, against Bangladesh. But since the beginning of the year, Sri Lanka have scrapped their way up the Test ladder. A drawn series against Pakistan in the UAE preceded wins in Bangladesh and England. Sri Lanka lost at home to South Africa, but have blanked Pakistan in a two-Test series.
Sri Lanka's 2014 return of five wins for two losses has lifted them to fourth in the Test rankings, behind South Africa, Australia and England. Mathews reflected fondly on the year so far, which has also featured an Asia Cup win, a World T20 win and three bilateral series victories.
"In the past six months we've played really well, in ODIs, Tests and T20s," he said. "There are series that you don't win. But we've been very consistent. It feels great to be moving up the rankings. As I took over I mentioned that I'm trying my best to get the team to the first three, in Tests and in ODIs. We've achieved that in the ODIs and we've got a move on again when it comes to Test cricket. We need to be consistent. If you look at the past six or seven games that we played, it all went down to the wire. It went down to the five days."
Rangana Herath has been Sri Lanka's primary match-winner in the past four years, and despite a quiet period in the first four Test series this year, he returned to his best with 23 wickets against Pakistan - a record for a two-match series. He has also bowled 615.2 overs for Sri Lanka since December 31, which is 252 more than any other bowler in that period.
"Rangana has been unbelievable," Mathews said. "He single-handedly won us the two games and the series. Even the best batsmen can't negotiate him. Starting from the second Test against South Africa up to now, it's been brilliant, and Rangana did a fantastic job in the last four Tests. We knew Pakistan were going to come really hard at us. They play our spinners very well, as well. It's just that we won those difficult situations. Those little phases where we had for fight really hard, we did."
Sri Lanka needed Herath to summon such extraordinary performances considering the rest of the attack posed very little threat. The other four frontline bowlers, excluding Mathews, accrued 16 wickets, at a collective average of 43.50. Calling for more support for Herath has been one of Mathews' familiar refrains, and he voiced it again after the series win.
"Unfortunately for Rangana he had to take all nine wickets in the first innings, but fortunately for us he did the job. We needed more support from the other end. I thought the two fast bowlers bowled pretty well, but Dilruwan Perera had an off Test match at the SSC, but he's been bowling well. He picked up five wickets in the last game. He bowled well against South Africa as well, so I'm pretty sure he'll bounce back."
Among the sub plots of the Test had been Dhammika Prasad's battles with the Pakistan quicks. Prasad was bounced by Junaid Khan and Wahab Riaz when he was batting in the first innings. Prasad's retaliation ruled Junaid unfit for the second innings with a mild concussion from a blow to the helmet. Prasad was predictably targeted with the short ball by Wahab in the second innings as well.
"It's very unfortunate what happened to Junaid Khan," Mathews said. "We never play with the intention of taking revenge or causing injury. But we do try things to take wickets. At the time we were trying to unsettle him, but unfortunately he was hit. Both myself and Dhammika went and saw him after the game. He's ok now, but doctors have asked him to take more rest."
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando