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Five months earlier, Sri Lanka had played host to South Africa in a tense, even and consistently entertaining series - drawn with one victory each - so the prospect of a rematch made the taste buds tingle. Much had been said between the players regarding the state of Sri Lankan pitches, and how different things would be in South Africa. The return leg was promoted as a battle between the home side's fast bowlers and visiting batsmen reputed to be brittle on quick, seaming pitches against hostile pace bowling.
Disappointingly, the Sri Lankans never adapted to the conditions and were hammered. Inappropriate slashes and a tendency to push at deliveries wide of off stump were the constant undoing of their top-order batsmen, whose collective fate was epitomised by their captain, Sanath Jayasuriya, in the Third Test - caught at third man, upper-cutting, in the ninth over of the innings. Kumar Sangakkara, a batsman only recently retreaded as a wicket-keeper, marked himself as a player for the future, however. In a couple of lengthy innings, he displayed the willingness and the ability to move behind the line of a rising delivery before deciding whether to play or leave it. Mahela Jayawardene, too, counter-attacked impressively, though injudiciously, but in effect Jayasuriya and his vice-captain and opening partner, Marvan Atapattu, led from the front in proving that few Asian batsmen can prosper in the conditions they encountered. Both endured thoroughly miserable series, with aggregates of 66 and 41 runs respectively. Even the late call-up of Aravinda de Silva, after leg-spinning all-rounder Upul Chandana broke a finger, failed to stop the clatter of wickets.
Spin master Muttiah Muralitharan was a charm, however. Arriving in South Africa with 291 wickets in just 57 Tests, he expressed his great desire to reach 300 during the series, but acknowledged that there would be little to assist him in the pitches. He promptly reached the milestone in the First Test, with a match haul of 11 for 161, and was presented with a huge commemorative plaque to celebrate the occasion. South Africa were spared Murali in the Third Test - he withdrew on the morning of the match with a hamstring strain - but by then the momentum was so powerfully behind the home team that there would have been little he could have done.
Rain undoubtedly saved the tourists during the First Test at Durban, with the whole of the fourth day washed out. But there was no respite in Cape Town, where they were rattled by a fiery Mfuneko Ngam and then skittled for 95 by home captain Shaun Pollock, who took six for 30. The Third Test, too, was miserably one-sided; Pollock turned destroyer-with-bat, carving a maiden Test century at No. 9, before masterminding a second successive innings defeat. So complete was South Africa's demolition that, at first glance, there was not even a crumb of success from which Sri Lanka could draw comfort. They were walloped 5-1 in the one-day series, too.
On their departure, however, observers could not fail to be impressed with the Sri Lankans' dignity in humiliation and togetherness in defeat. With the direst tour requiring just a dash of acrimony and a pinch of back-stabbing for total implosion, there was none. For that, at least, Jayasuriya could be grateful. It also demonstrated the regard his players had for him. Only after Sri Lanka reached New Zealand for another one-day series did news of a personal tragedy surface: during the final Test, Jayasuriya's wife had suffered a miscarriage at home in Sri Lanka. Given the personal trauma and the hopelessness of a tour gone badly wrong, it was a remarkable effort for him to bat at all.
Match reports for
Tour Match: North Island Selection XI v Sri Lankans at New Plymouth, Jan 28, 2001
Match reports for
Nicky Oppenheimer XI v Sri Lankans at Randjesfontein, Dec 7, 2000
Eastern Province v Sri Lankans at Port Elizabeth, Dec 9-10, 2000
Eastern Province v Sri Lankans at Korsten, Dec 13, 2000
KwaZulu-Natal v Sri Lankans at Durban, Dec 19, 2000
Tour Match: KwaZulu-Natal v Sri Lankans at Pietermaritzburg, Dec 21-23, 2000