Sri Lanka v South Africa, 2nd Test, SSC, 5th day July 28, 2014

Lady luck finally deserts Sri Lanka

In a year where Sri Lanka have won almost every prize they laid their eyes on, their luck was bound to run its course at some point. It did on Monday

"Please, please, please!!": When it mattered the most, fortune wasn't on Sri Lanka's side © AFP

Two slips and a gully. A leg slip and a leg gully. A short leg. Silly mid off. Dilruwan Perera lurks at short cover. Rangana Herath prowls the bowling crease. Crows patrol fine leg. Fresh air blows through deep point. Sri Lanka are in their third last-hour finish in four Tests. Drama follows them like a man with an axe goes after the pretty girl in a horror flick.

This is the kind of stuff Sri Lanka's Test supporters - a meagre and masochistic, but passionate lot - live for. When Imran Tahir came to the crease, there were five men up close on the off side to him.

Angelo Mathews brought short-midwicket squarer. Mahela Jayawardene told leg slip to close in six inches. Herath ripped some hard, slid others on; went around the wicket first, then over it, firing many into the rough, and floating some up fuller.

Throughout the day, Perera and Herath had beaten enough willow to supply a paper-making factory. When the edges were eventually hit, the ball would skim low into one of the few unmanned spaces around the batsmen.

Sri Lanka have had their share of good fortune in the five months they won every trophy they played for, so a day like this was overdue. Two fifty-fifty umpiring calls went against them. One lbw shout off Hashim Amla that should have been given out, was turned down, with no reviews remaining.

Then there was the rain. The third of the breaks - for a brief, but heavy shower - was the most frustrating. The umpires called the covers on, then off, then on and off again, all in the space of fifteen minutes. The Sri Lanka players raced out onto the field, with less than 90 minutes to play, but another squall washed through just as they were taking their fielding positions.

So unwilling to trod off, they just milled about on the side of the square. Several groundstaff kept glancing at them, as if to say, "If you're going to stand there getting drenched, at least help with the covers". That was perhaps the only thing Sri Lanka had not tried in their pursuit of victory, having batted positively in both innings and attacked without relent in the field.

When the rain eased to finally allow the last phase of play, JP Duminy walked to the crease as if he were in a funeral possession. Perhaps he was mourning his own batting, which lacked a pulse. He made 6 off 123 in the match.

Several groundstaff kept glancing at them, as if to say, "If you're going to stand there getting drenched, at least help with the covers". That was perhaps the only thing Sri Lanka had not tried in their pursuit of victory, having batted positively in both innings and attacked without relent in the field

Later on, Tahir provided the most high-quality entertainment, even in an innings that yielded just 4 off 21 balls. He would lunge out late at the full deliveries, pat the ball into the ground, and in an extravagant forward-defence follow-through, nearly lay the bat face down on the pitch. He was almost offering the bat in a thanksgiving sacrifice to the SSC pitch-god who had allowed him to survive one more delivery.

The divine was clearly unsatisfied with that, because with three minutes left on the clock, Tahir became a self-appointed human sacrifice. He lay voluntarily immobile at the Tennis Courts end, apparently with sudden-onset full-body paralysis, for which the only cure was Vernon Philander coming down the pitch and telling him he may be taking the gag too far. Even Sri Lanka Tests can only handle so much drama.

When Sri Lanka needed one wicket in the final hour at Headingley, Mathews had called for 10 changes, searching frantically for the magic ball Shaminda Eranga finally provided. Then, he had four wicket-takers to rotate.

In the second innings at the SSC, he was reduced to having basically a two-man attack. Herath and Perera had been impeccable, but Suranga Lakmal seemed worn and flat, given the surface he was working with. Ajantha Mendis had bowled so poorly in the Test, he was practically only called on to bowl an over while Herath and Perera swapped ends. Even that one over sometimes seemed too much for him.

This Sri Lanka team does not like to criticise their own, but after the match, Mathews made clear his disappointment in Mendis' wicketless outing. "We expected a lot more from him, but he couldn't' deliver much," he said. "We thought, having three spinners - he will be able to contribute. It wasn't the usual SSC wicket. It was much drier and expected to assist spin bowling a lot. The spinner we thought could make a difference was Mendis. He had a quite a bad game."

In the end, Sri Lanka were foiled by Tahir, who had arguably been even less impressive with the ball than Mendis, while Vernon Philander, the other villain of the series, stood at the other end. Having played positive cricket from the start of the series to its end, Sri Lanka gave their fans something to cheer for, but ran out of luck in the dying hours.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

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