Lara sparkles, Murali ignites
One would imagine that the real drama in a Test series between West Indies and Sri Lanka would be in the battle between Brian Lara and Muttiah Muralitharan; one, a mercurial genius who can tear apart any bowling attack on his day, the other, a phenomenon who, if spin bowling is an art, is Picasso and Dali rolled into one.
In the context of the times though, that drama seemed to have dubious value. Lara had slipped well below his peak, and averaged 36 in his last 10 Tests before this encounter. Muralitharan, meanwhile, was redefining the heights it was possible to touch in this game, and had picked up 67 scalps in his last 10 Tests at an average of 20.5. With the Tests being held in Sri Lanka, Lara was not really expected to be a factor and a Murali whitewash seemed on the cards.
Then, for a day and a half, Lara turned it all around. The West Indies won the toss and batted; Lara tore into a stunned Sri Lankan attack. Murali, horror of horrors, looked pedestrian and all the magic flowed from the bat. In the company of first the solid Ramnaresh Sarwan and then the strokeful Carl Hooper, Lara ground the Sri Lankan attack to dust. An upset result seemed eminently possible as the game wound its way into the second day.
Then Murali struck. He got rid of both Lara and Hooper and, as is his wont, scythed through the tail to end with 6 for 126; that included 5 for 18 in his last spell as the last six WI wickets fell for just 25 runs.
Then it was grind, grind, grind; an approach other subcontinental teams would do well to pick up. A draw seemed the likeliest result given the benign nature of the pitch and the fact that the West Indies had ended on 448, but the Sri Lankans knew just what Murali could do on the last day and they set about building a lead he could work with. Mahela Jayawardene made 99 and Hashan Tillekeratne hit an excellent unbeaten century down the order but Kumar Sangakkara was the revelation, playing almost nine hours for his 140, an exemplary exhibition of Test-match batting.
Lara had predicted, partly in jest, that he would make another 150 in the second innings. The West Indies, 142 runs behind, needed it. But he managed only 40, and it was Muralitharan, again, who hogged the limelight with yet another five-for that left Sri Lanka 3 to win.
The key to a team's greatness, say some, lies in the balance. South Africa have some world class allrounders, which means they're never short of extra bowlers; and they bat deep. Australia have a world-class wicketkeeper who averages 50-plus in Tests. Sri Lanka, while not quite in the same class yet, are getting there.
Wicketkeeper Kumar Sangakkara, who averages 40-plus in Tests, would walk into the team as a specialist batsman. Sanath Jayasuriya is a more-than-competent spinner, and Chaminda Vaas is a useful batsman down the order.
These men lend the team such balance that allrounders who have played recently, like Suresh Perera and Thilan Samaraweera, have seemed almost redundant. Now that they have the balance, can this team achieve momentum?