First Test

Sri Lanka v Australia

Paul Coupar

At Galle, March 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 2004. Australia won by 197 runs. Toss: Australia. Test debut: A. Symonds.

After the first innings of this fabulous Test, Sri Lanka's position looked as impregnable as the stone fort that dwarfs the Galle stadium. They had a lead of 161, the world's most complete spinner ready to bowl on an arid pitch, and history overwhelmingly in their favour - only nine Test sides since 1900 had overcome such a deficit and won. Ponting's honeymoon as Test captain looked likely to last around four days.

But Australia turned it round. The last Tests to see such a swing pivoted round a freakishly brilliant spell by Shoaib Akhtar for Pakistan against New Zealand at Wellington ten weeks earlier and a miraculous innings by V. V. S. Laxman for India against Australia at Kolkata in 2000-01. This time it was just hard cricket and self-belief that won it. In horrible heat, Hayden hit a century of little style but match-changing substance, and the middle order ground Sri Lanka into the dust. Warne and MacGill then bowled them out on the last afternoon. But it was Australia's batsmen who manufactured the win.

Australia made four changes to the side that had struggled against India's batsmen at Sydney two months before. Warne, available after a 12-month drugs ban, was predictably, and gladly, welcomed straight back. Kasprowicz was recalled in place of the injured Lee, and Lehmann stepped into Steve Waugh's huge shoes. English-born Andrew Symonds played as an off-spinning all-rounder; had he chosen England, his Test debut would probably have come much earlier. As it was, he had played a record 94 one-day internationals before he displaced poor Simon Katich who was dropped the Test after scoring a century.

Sri Lanka began with a clear plan: prepare a bone-dry pitch and pack the side with spinners, five in total. One visiting journalist, looking at the wicket set in a lush outfield, said it was the first time he'd seen a drought 22 yards long and three yards wide. It is not the normal response to a visit from Shane Warne, so it was risky but, for the first two days, it worked. The pitch did turn but only slowly, and too many Australian batsmen were over-keen to make an attacking statement. Lehmann reached the top score of 63 before being flummoxed by Muralitharan's doosra, one of his six victims for 59. Australia's 220 looked paltry.

In reply, Sri Lanka showed the patience Australia lacked. After a hot, tough second day they were 132 ahead, with four wickets standing and the match under control. Dilshan, who used his feet and a straight bat to make 104, continued his golden form from the England series. But in fading light he top-edged a pull against the second new ball. It was reward for the persevering attack and it kept the door an inch open for Australia.

On day three, the most gripping of a gripping series, they somehow prised it open. Sri Lanka's last wickets fell quickly, as Samaraweera, the final recognised batsman, made a poor 36 not out, neither shepherding the tail nor playing shots. Then, in blazing afternoon heat, and on a wearing pitch, Australia began the long trek towards safety. Hayden led the way. He put on 91 with Langer and 84 with Ponting, before running him out. It was as compelling as cricket gets: some of the world's best batsmen against Murali. Despite several scrapes, Hayden attacked sensibly and refused to let the bowler settle. By the close, he had 106 of Australia's 193 for two.

Hayden was finally caught at slip on the fourth morning. He had battled more than five hours for 130, using little more than the sweep shot, iron willpower and a multi-coloured umbrella, brought on to provide welcome shade during breaks in play. Martyn then stockpiled runs unobtrusively, making his first Test hundred in two years. And Lehmann, less studious, followed three balls later. They were so successful that, despite five expensive wickets for Murali (giving him match figures of 11 for 212), Australia could even declare, 351 ahead.

Sri Lanka's spirits had wilted, and they managed just 154. Their demoralised batsmen fell to a masterly display of controlled leg-spin from Warne, in his first post-ban Test. As he approached 500 wickets, the "Warnie Wicket Count", painted on a bedsheet by the travelling Australian fans, ticked on, while the huge sign counting Murali's wickets was stuck on 496. They started the last day level. Atapattu fended a quicker ball - 497. Dilshan played inside the straight one - 498. Jayawardene edged to slip - 499. And finally, at 1.38 p.m., with the Dutch fort and most of Australia behind him, Warne found Tillekeratne's top edge and became only the second man in history, after Courtney Walsh, to 500. The last three wickets were a formality, though Dharmasena provided not only Warne's tenth victim of the match - one behind Murali - but Hayden's seventh catch, equalling the Test record. Australia won by 197 runs: comebacks don't come much more comprehensive.

Man of the Match: M. L. Hayden.

© John Wisden & Co