Dinesh Chandimal's debut Test was perhaps Sri Lanka's best Test win, in Durban in the last week of 2011. It was no coincidence, though. Chandimal debuted into 30,989 runs. Angelo Mathews, who contributed a thousand of his own to those batting riches at that time, himself debuted into a side that had Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Thilan Samaraweera and Tillakaratne Dilshan. Both of them will be aware of the soft landing they enjoyed. Even if you take out Samaraweera and Dilshan, there was almost a guarantee of runs at Nos. 3 and 4. That world seemed an ideal place to bring babies into.
The world has clearly changed since then. It is an edgier, hotter and more polluted place to live in. You wouldn't have said that of international cricket fields a week ago, but when you see players unable to continue because of pollution and the opposition looking at it as unnecessary stoppages, you really do wonder if it is a good place to bring debutants into. Especially if you are the Sri Lanka team.
When Jayawardene and Sangakkara left, it was Mathews and Chandimal who were the best of the remaining batsmen and were expected to ease the entry of youngsters into their line-up. To be that solidarity in the middle in a team that has typically been full of journeymen batsmen around two rocks in the middle. It is not an ideal structure of course. If it were, it would have introduced better batsmen to Sri Lankan cricket than it did. Yet that is how Sri Lanka operated when Jayawardene and Sangakkara were there.
The expectations to follow that act were lofty, but Mathews and Chandimal haven't been able to provide that bedrock that might make it easier for other younger batsmen to ease into Test cricket. It doesn't help that Sri Lanka cricket has failed to give them their Dilshan and Samaraweera. The pressure then is immense because the major share of blame for the team's recent batting failures is left at their door. And the seniors other than these two have been rotating: Lahiru Thirimanne has never nailed a place, Kusal Perera is dropped, and nobody has been able to figure out Upul Tharanga anyway.
"[There's] Not a single game where I have played without any pressure," Mathews said after finally putting together a big partnership with Chandimal, which the youngsters need to see more of. "From my debut up to now, I feel the same pressure. But when you get slightly older, you face more pressure."
This was a bloody-minded effort from two senior batsmen who were badly needed to stand up for Sri Lanka's pride. Pride is often evoked too liberally in sport, but when your first full tour of a country in eight years is being treated by the hosts as tour matches for their next overseas trip, that pride has to take a hit. That the opposition doesn't even want to use their home advantage to beat you. Then you are asked that question at every press conference. And you mumble something uncontroversial. Then you are treated with hostility when you complain of ill health owing to the hazardous pollution at a Test venue.
And then the two seniors score centuries and add 181 to avoid a follow-on and make sure they have a chance to salvage a draw out of the series when the last day comes up. "There was extremely good bowling to counter," Mathews said. "We had to grind and work hard. Chandi was batting so well. His knock was a flowing one. He was so fluent. For me not one of the more fluent innings, but one where I had to work extremely hard. I am glad that I worked hard, and ultimately it paid off."
This was a day Sri Lanka cricket needed badly. A day where the seniors showed the newcomers it can be done. That they can stand up to the most menacing of the oppositions. Much of the hard work, though, was done on the second evening when India were riding this awesome momentum created by indignation over what they felt were unnecessary stoppages and consequently the fans getting behind them in a manner intimidating for any visiting batsman. They could have easily lost six or seven in that whirlwind, but Mathews and Chandimal saw that period off, thanks in part to India's ordinary slip catching.
Day three was proper Test batting. As Mathews acknowledged, India bowled well in trying conditions. Even if they might not let on, these are far from ideal conditions for any athletic pursuit, let alone bowling fast, which even in best of conditions is an unnatural act. The pitch didn't turn alarmingly, but the two India spinners managed to keep asking questions. R Ashwin still bowled without a cover and managed to get hit there rarely. Ravindra Jadeja kept creating excitement through effort deliveries amid tight spells. All through this, Mathews and Chandimal showed immaculate discipline.
"Very pleased," Mathews said. "Big relief as well. I knew I was hitting the ball well in the nets. After the Kolkata Test, where I scored a 50, I was disappointed that I couldn't capitalise on it. I had the confidence in myself as I was hitting the ball well in the nets. Once I had a start, I wanted to capitalise. Little bit of luck as well. It all happens in the game, and I am pleased to cross three figures. But then, I could have gone onto get a bigger one. But credit to the Indian bowlers. They kept at it. We had to work extremely hard for runs."
The day ended in bitter disappointment for Sri Lanka, though. The youngsters had finally been given what they would have been looking for: a big partnership and a relatively pressure-free initiation. The others folded softly, though. The work for Mathews and Chandimal is not yet done. On day five, they will have to show the youngsters once again that it can be done. And if they have to go back to their glory days, the two will have to keep showing that again and again.