Just six weeks after being shaken at home by India, Australia arrived in Sri Lanka for their first Tests of the post-Waugh era amid whispers about the possible end of their long supremacy.
In fact, the outcome suggested this was not even the beginning of the beginning of the end. Under Ricky Ponting, Steve Waugh's successor as Test captain, Australia inflicted Sri Lanka's first-ever home whitewash in a three- Test series, and won the one-dayers 3-2. Four years earlier, Waugh had come here to suffer defeat and a broken nose, smashed in a fielding accident. This time it was Sri Lanka who lurched into crisis. Their Test captain, Hashan Tillekeratne, resigned. Their governing board, which had undergone five upheavals in as many years, was flirting with financial ruin, while its president, Thilanga Sumathipala, was on remand, mostly under guard in hospital, charged with passport fraud. Worst of all, their match-winner, Muttiah Muralitharan, was reported for chucking.
Still, it was not quite as balmy for Australia, or as bleak for Sri Lanka, as results hinted. None of the one-day games was a thrashing and, in the First Test at Galle, Sri Lanka's plan to parch the pitch and spin out the opposition was one Hayden epic away from success. They were 161 ahead on first innings before a dramatic turnaround. That Test set the pattern. In the Second, at Kandy, Australia scraped only 120 in their first innings, their worst total in six and a half years, but sneaked a win. In the Third, they were on course to leave Sri Lanka a derisory target before Langer and Katich set themselves in concrete at the crease.
The wins were triumphs of self-belief over probability, which dictated that Sri Lanka should have won at least once. On the first two days of the Tests Australia averaged 30 per wicket, and the Sri Lankans nearly 45. But on days three, four and five the Australians averaged more than 42 per wicket, the Sri Lankans less than 22. When the going got tough, Australia got going and Sri Lanka got nervy. "We were just so soft," said Tillekeratne. He was right. The Sri Lankans lacked self-belief, not least Tillekeratne himself. His captaincy was often reactive and defensive, and lacked Ponting's firmness of purpose. Australian skill was equally decisive, however, in particular their batsmen's blunting of Muralitharan, who had terrorised England into crease-bound pad-play on their recent tour. The Australians used their feet. It took fighter-pilot courage, but it helped neuter the doosra, the ball which spat the wrong way, and it opened up scoring opportunities. They hit Muralitharan for 3.10 an over, and fielders stopping runs meant fewer huddling the bat. Murali still took 28 wickets at 23.17 - a record on the losing side in a three-match series - but he was contained. By the Second Test, he was bowling round the wicket to defensive, legside fields.
Things soon got far worse for him. As the Australian backpackers, who generated almost all the atmosphere at the Tests, noisily celebrated the clean sweep, referee Chris Broad announced his suspicion that the doosra was delivered with an illegal action. Some Sri Lankans alleged an Anglo-Saxon plot to trip Muralitharan, who finished the series on 513 Test wickets, four behind Shane Warne as they raced each other towards Courtney Walsh's world-record 519. The knockers gleefully said it invalidated Murali's whole career. A later biomechanical investigation by the University of Western Australia vindicated neither party, agreeing the doosra was illegal, but wondering why he should be singled out. "There are many finger spinners straightening more than the five degrees allowed," said Bruce Elliott, the biomechanics expert who led the investigation, "not just Murali." But the ICC confirmed that he could be no-balled for throwing if he continued to bowl it.
The series itself, unlike previous meetings, had been played in a refreshing "it's-only-a-game" spirit, epitomised by one-day captain Marvan Atapattu's remarkable sportsmanship in recalling Andrew Symonds to the wicket after he was given out lbw. But later it got ugly, especially in high places. Sri Lanka's board claimed (wrongly) that Broad and the Australians had been out "boozing" together. In May, the Sri Lankan prime minister, Mahinda Rajapakse, threatened to sue the ICC; Australia's, John Howard, publicly called Muralitharan a chucker. Embattled and tired, Murali refused to go on the reciprocal tour to Australia four months later.
It was a sad end to what should have been a celebration of two bowlers who had revived the art of spin. Both Murali and Warne began the series approaching 500 Test wickets, and the Great Race became an extraordinary sideshow, heavily pushed by the cash-strapped home board who hoped, mistakenly, it might boost abysmal Test attendances. The race was won by Warne. After his yearlong ban for taking a prohibited drug, he returned better than before, ripping his leg-break a touch harder. Helped by receptive pitches, tight support bowling and a lean physique, he took 26 wickets at 20.03, and his control proved crucial on last-day pitches. Without him, Galle and Colombo might have been draws. But as well as regaining old strengths, Australia showed a few unfamiliar weaknesses. Their team selection seemed wacky. On a green pitch at Kandy they chose a second leggie, only to replace him with a third seamer on a desiccated wicket at Colombo. And Symonds's few overs of off-spin did not justify his selection over Simon Katich, dropped after a century in his last Test at Sydney. Meanwhile, the first-innings batting, which averaged 463 under Waugh, was often awful, scraping just 247 on average. Partly that was down to the pitches: sappy at Kandy, parched to suit Sri Lanka's spinners at Galle and Colombo. Mainly it was down to impatience.
Those failures seemed even odder when set against three glorious secondinnings triumphs. Six of Australia's seven centuries came in the second innings, under extreme pressure and in draining heat. Darren Lehmann, previously a fringe player, was the pick. He scored 375 runs at 62.50 by using his feet and placing neatly or biffing over the in-field. Lehmann said the recent death of his friend David Hookes had changed his view on the importance of cricket and made him unafraid of failure. But all the batsmen except Symonds played match-changing innings.
For Sri Lanka, Chaminda Vaas bowled with subtle variation, especially at Kandy, and deserved more than 11 wickets. And Sanath Jayasuriya scored 294 largely counter-attacking runs at 49.00 and hit the bowling out of its groove. But they relied too heavily on these ageing players, and on Murali. With the uncertainty at board level, development of young players seemed to have been neglected.
It was a tricky series to judge. Should Sri Lanka be praised for getting on top or criticised for not staying there? And just how strong were the Australians? Ponting rightly said they played some of their best cricket for a long time. But they also played some of their flakiest.
Match reports for
Sri Lanka Cricket President's XI v Australians at Moratuwa, Feb 17, 2004
Sri Lanka Cricket President's XI v Australians at Colombo (CCC), Mar 2-4, 2004