Sri Lanka did not imagine they could lose the match at lunch on day four, Angelo Mathews admitted after Pakistan strode to a seven-wicket win in Pallekele, to complete a 2-1 series victory. Mathews had been instrumental in Sri Lanka's third-innings 313, which set up a lead of 376. However, Pakistan chased down this target with ease, inside four sessions of batting.
Sri Lanka's seamers had claimed two early wickets in the Pakistan chase, but could not separate Younis Khan and Shan Masood for 66.4 overs, during which the pair added 242. Offspinner Tharindu Kaushal's waywardness fetched him figures of 1 for 153 from 31 overs.
"I actually thought after we made 376 that we were sitting pretty," Mathews said. "This will definitely take a lot of time to digest, this defeat. We never expected this sort of performance from our team as well as the Pakistanis. We obviously played three seamers because there was a little grass in the pitch and we had to go with three [of them]. But then on the fourth and fifth day in Sri Lanka, you can't expect a lot of help from the wicket for the seamers. Unfortunately, Tharindu Kaushal didn't bowl that well and we couldn't put the pressure on them. We fought really hard to get to 376 and we never thought we would lose from there."
Pakistan, having made only 215 in the first innings, made the game's highest total of 382 in their chase. Mathews said the pitch had flattened out by the fourth and fifth day, but added that his attack's indiscipline remained a key cause for the loss.
"The ball didn't turn that much in the last couple of days," Mathews said. "It turned a little bit in patches. It turned in the third session yesterday and then settled down. In the first couple of sessions of their innings, it barely turned. For the seamers, there was no hope at all. They bowled their hearts out. Hats off to them, they've been brilliant throughout the series. I thought Dhammika Prasad was brilliant, as were Nuwan Pradeep and Suranga Lakmal. Even Dushmantha Chameera was excellent in the last game. I thought there was no help from the wicket.
"But you can't really blame that when you've got 376 to get them all out. Kaushal has played a lot of matches in A team cricket, which is why we chose him. But we need to think about the pressure of being the only spinner. He's not an experienced Test bowler."
In the fourth innings, Sri Lanka appeared to miss the control usually provided by Rangana Herath, who was dropped from the side for the first time since 2010. Herath had taken only two wickets in three innings in the first two Tests and Mathews described his omission as a 'tactical decision'.
"It was a tough call to leave him out and it was just a tactical decision because he is our No. 1 bowler. Unfortunately, we had to leave him out because they [Pakistan] were playing Rangana really well in the first couple of matches and Kaushal was troubling them in the second Test. We thought that's the way to go in this particular Test. Rangana is our top spinner still."
The third Test also marked the return of two older batsmen for Sri Lanka. Upul Tharanga returned to the Test side after almost a year's hiatus, and Jehan Mubarak played his first Test since 2007. While neither of them managed a substantial score, Mathews suggested they had both done enough to retain their place in the side.
"Upul and Jehan are older cricketers with a bit of experience. Even if they haven't played many Tests, they have played a lot of domestic cricket. In the second innings they dealt with the pressure they [Pakistan] put us under well. They didn't go past 50, but the partnerships they put up helped us get to 376. Both of them are playing a Test after a long time. They gave their best to the team according to the context of the game."
Lahiru Thirimanne, meanwhile, had a wretched series with the bat. He had a high-score of 44 not out from six innings at an average of 18.
"It does happen as a cricketer. You do run into poor form," Mathews said. "We are backing Thirimanne because we know that he is a very good player. We can't really expect the guys to be Kumar Sangakkaras and Mahela Jayawardenes right now because the guys are still finding their way in Test cricket. A lot of them haven't played much Test cricket. When a batsman is having a rough time you've got to deal with it carefully. You can't blame it on him. But I think he will definitely take responsibility in the future.
"Over 15 years we've seen Mahela and Kumar play, but we can't measure the young players on their scale. In the past years, if one misses out, the other scores a hundred most of the time. We have to be patient with this side. We're all learning."