An outstanding Test got the nail-biting finish it deserved, as a match which neither side deserved to lose finally went Sri Lanka's way by the narrowest of margins - one wicket. Mahela Jayawardene's magnificent 123 took them to the brink of the 352-run target but South Africa fought back spectacularly after lunch only to be denied right at the end, as Sri Lanka achieved the sixth-highest successful run-chase in Test history. A series scoreline of 0-2 does scant justice to the contest that unfolded.
When the players trooped off for lunch on the final day at the P Saravanamuttu Stadium, with Mahela unbeaten on 117 and Ferveez Maharoof giving him company on 24, it was easy to imagine that only the formalities remained - the target was 19 runs away with four wickets in hand, Mahela was batting with utter serenity, and with Maharoof had overcome an iffy start to post a 62-run stand. As it turned out, that one-hour passage of play after lunch was fraught with heart-stopping tension and excitement, as Sri Lanka lost three wickets and managed just 19 runs in 13.3 overs.
The drama heated up as a South African side which had seemed flat before lunch suddenly appeared to have perked up, with a definite game plan in mind. The loss of Makhaya Ntini - he didn't take the field on the fifth day due to a hamstring injury - was a huge blow, but the rest of the bowlers made up for his absence. Dale Steyn started proceedings after lunch with a ring of three close-in fielders on the leg side, while Nicky Boje kept it tight and attacked with close-in fielders. Neither batsman was given room to play his strokes, and the pressure gradually told: after just eight came off seven overs, Mahela attempted to ease the pressure, charging down the pitch to play his favourite extra-cover drive. This time, however, he only managed to edge it to Herschelle Gibbs at slip, who finally made amends for the mistake he had committed when Mahela was on 2 (341 for 7).
That suddenly brought South Africa back in the contest. Chaminda Vaas was completely tied down, as seven came off the next five overs, and when he tried to break the shackles, AB de Villiers plucked an amazing left-handed catch at gully to further put the result in doubt (348 for 8). Sri Lanka were now one big hit away from their target, and the next man in, Muttiah Muralitharan, attempted to do just that. It worked partially, when a lusty blow fetched him two, but then Hall bowled one perfectly straight, Muralitharan missed, the stumps were rattled, and Sri Lanka were 350 for 9. Maharoof took a single, and amid mounting tension, Lasith Malinga finally sealed the issue, clubbing a drive down the ground for the winning run.
The drama at the end took the spotlight from the man who became only the fifth player to score more than 500 runs in a two-Test series. Over the last four months, Mahela has shown that he is ready to step up one notch from an elegant and stylish batsman to one who can deliver at the crunch. At Lord's earlier this year his 119 helped saved the game from a near-hopeless position, and while his triple-century in the first Test wasn't under extreme conditions, it still showed his ability to bat for long periods. Today, and over the last two days in fact, the pressure on him and his side was immense: a total of more than 350 had never been chased before in the fourth innings in Sri Lanka or by Sri Lanka, and while the pitch wasn't a minefield, it was helping the bowlers enough to suggest that the task would be a tough one.
On the fourth day Mahela was all class and assurance, and today he continued in similar vein, as Sri Lanka started the day with 90 needed. Unflustered by the bowlers or the match situation, he started the day in glorious fashion, creaming a flawless cover-drive off Andrew Hall, and then following it with a perfect cut shot when Boje pitched it short. The batsmen at the other end struggled - Prasanna Jayawardene was trapped in front by an inswinging delivery, while Maharoof survived two reprieves off consecutive balls - but Mahela was hardly bothered, clipping Hall down the ground and then slashing past point for successive fours to get to 98. The century came in the next over, with an easy drive down the ground for a single. And when the new ball was taken, Mahela remained immoveable, defending solidly against Steyn - who slowed down in pace but was far more consistent with his radar - and Shaun Pollock, accurate but hardly threatening.
South Africa almost pulled off a remarkable win in the end, but they only had themselves to blame for finishing second-best. The series scoreline could easily have been 1-1 had they held the chances that came their way. Gibbs had spilled Mahela when he was on 2, and as if that wasn't enough, there was more largesse in the field on the final day, with Maharoof being the beneficiary: Mark Boucher missed a stumping off one which spun, bounced, and beat Maharoof's defence, while Hashim Amla made a hash of a bat-pad chance at silly point off the very next delivery. Maharoof was then on 2, and ultimately finished on an unbeaten 29. Those blemishes, though, had a huge hand to play in making this match one of the most memorable in recent Test history.
Prasanna Jayawardene lbw b Hall 30 (279 for 6)
Pitched on off and reverse-swung, trapping batsman right in front
Mahela Jayawardene c Gibbs b Boje 123 (341 for 7)
Charged down the pitch but beaten by the turn and edged to slip
Chaminda Vaas c de Villiers b Hall 4 (348 for 8)
Outstanding one-handed catch at gully off an edged drive
Muttiah Muralitharan b Hall 2 (350 for 9)
Slogged at a straight ball and missed
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo