A quintessential Sri Lanka collapse
There was a buzz about Galle Stadium on Sunday morning. Kumar Sangakkara was in. Mahela Jayawardene was to come. Sri Lanka's solidity on Saturday evening was cause for their coach believing victory was within their sight.
Everyone knew 260 was a gargantuan target, but Lord's and Headingley has instilled a little belief in the Sri Lanka fans, just as those matches boosted confidence in the team. Some drove down from Colombo in expectation. "I thought it could be one of those 'I was there' moments, you know?" one person said. "It could be a classic."
It was not an 'I was there' moment, except for those who took pleasure in watching the best bowler in the world return the best figures for a fast bowler in Galle. But it was a classic, of sorts. It was the classic Sri Lanka collapse.
More indiscretion than ineptitude, a Sri Lanka collapse is imbued with as much subtlety and nuance as a Rangana Herath spell, or a field that Mahela Jayawardene would set. They are usually not like the single-digit abounding, telephone-number wonders that Pakistan sometimes contrive. Or New Zealand's languid but unrelenting declines - like a slowly deflating circus tent, or a bird flying into a window-pane in slow motion.
Sri Lanka collapses are a sub-genre of their own, because they are so often preceded by a little top-order excellence, then each subsequent wicket takes a little time to come. They are like a cartoon man who climbs to the top of the tree, and when he slips and falls, interrupts his descent regularly on the way down, as his pants snag on each branch. He might have climbed pretty high, but he ends up on the forest-floor mulch all the same. Sri Lanka get their fans all the way down to Galle, then they kick them in the gonads.
Like Citizen Kane, this collapse also rewards repeat viewings, for the keen observer. Almost every top-order dismissal was a microcosm of the weaknesses in each man's game. Upul Tharanga drove and edged behind. Mahela Jayawardene poked at a seaming ball outside off stump and nicked off as well. Lahiru Thirimanne was out cover-driving to a ball angled across him, a la the first innings. Dinesh Chandimal hooked at the second short ball he got, and though replays were not conclusive whether he gloved it, he was out to the bouncer for another low score.
Even Kumar Sangakkara fell in slapstick fashion, mis-hitting what was among the worst balls he has received all game. He swears by thorough preparation, so perhaps the coaches can send down rank long-hops to him in the nets, over the next few days. He will be livid to have not only gifted his wicket away in the second innings, but also to have not extended his streak of 50-plus scores, when he got out for 22 in the first innings.
It was fitting that Angelo Mathews remained unbeaten at the close, because beyond his own extraordinary batting form, he also captained Sri Lanka with positivity and flair, particularly on the fourth day. He confirmed after the match that he had ordered his men to go for an unlikely victory, but lamented that they did not do it nearly well enough.
"When we ended the fourth day at 110 for 1, our plan this morning was to go after the target," Mathews said. "But like in the first innings we didn't bat well.
"I was planning to go higher up the order in the run chase, in the afternoon session. But unfortunately we lost Sangakkara and I had to go back to my normal position and bat with the tail once again."
If Mathews' average remaining unspoilt by the day five capitulation was reward for his attitude and application, there was karmic symmetry on the other side too. Having copped only a 75% fine for ball tampering (which the South Africa side have shrugged off with revealing nonchalance), Philander finished the match without a wicket to his name, while the other quicks cashed in. Still, while day three's middle-order woes might be blamed on unfair reverse swing, Sri Lanka surrendered all on their own on day five.
"There were no demons on the fifth day," Mathews said. "They had a couple of spinners who were not dangerous, and if we had some wickets in hand we could have given a good run at them. But unfortunately we kept on losing wickets to their seamers on this track. It does a little bit up and down, but the wicket didn't have much to do with it. It was bad batting."
Sri Lanka now head to one of the most consistently flat pitches in the world, needing victory to draw the series, with Shaminda Eranga, their best seam bowler unlikely to play. They have blown so many 1-0 leads in the past few years, perhaps they are trying going down by one, for a change. Whatever pitch they encounter at the SSC, the team cannot afford another one of these quintessential collapses in Colombo.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando