When Rumesh Ratnayake dived across the pitch midway into his follow-through to take a return catch offered by Kapil Dev on a September day in Colombo 22 years ago, the importance of the moment did not immediately sink in. It was only when his ecstatic team-mates rushed to Ratnayake, pinning him to the ground, and the rapturous crowd roared its approval that it hit home: Sri Lanka had just recorded their maiden Test triumph. It had taken them three years and 14 matches after gaining Test status in 1982.
"We didn't know how to win a Test match then," Ratnayake, now an Asian Cricket Council development officer, said. Sri Lanka made up for that inexperience, though, with a fierce desire, and in the end that was what made the difference. "We were committed and we wanted to prove that we were good enough to challenge any side. That win gave us a lot pride," Roy Dias, the side's senior pro, remembered.
On paper, India were formidable: the world champions, winners of the World Championship of Cricket and the tri-series in Sharjah, both earlier that year. But what happened on their first official tour to Sri Lanka was a rude awakening, best summarised by the headline of the series review in the Indian Cricket of 1986: "A traumatic trip."
The tour had been hastily arranged as a vote of thanks for Sri Lanka's support for India's bid to host the 1987 World Cup. There was civil unrest in the island, and till the series actually got going there was every likelihood it would be cancelled. "We did not perform too well because of lack of practice. We just did not know whether this tour of Sri Lanka was on or not," Kapil, India's captain, said, speaking to R Mohan of the Sportstar after the series. "We were not mentally prepared for the ordeal." Veteran cricket writer Sunder Rajan wrote in Indian Cricket: "It will be no exaggeration to say that the Board of Control for Cricket in India was as much responsible for the team's failures as the players."
The hosts, on the other hand, had done their homework, and had worked out specific strategies to deal with India's famous batting order, among them maintaining an off-and-middle bowling line and moving it away. The wickets were conducive to seam bowling and Sri Lanka's attack was marshalled ably by Ashantha de Mel, who along with the young pair of Ratnayake and Saliya Ahangama consistently got prodigious swing and put doubts in the minds of the Indian batsmen. While Sri Lanka's fast bowlers managed to take 19 of the 20 Indian wickets in the second Test, their Indian counterparts only managed eight. Kapil took one wicket in the match.
India came into the Test in a tentative state of mind after having been made to fight hard to stay alive in the previous Test. Set an improbable 123 to win in 11 overs at the SSC, Sri Lanka made an impressive tilt at the total, racking up 61 in eight overs, led by the youthful fervour of Aravinda de Silva and Arjuna Ranatunga, before their charge was halted by fading light and a few quick wickets.
They carried that momentum into the second Test, where they batted first and put up a total of 385 - though at a rather more sedate rate than that of their previous innings - aided by abysmal Indian fielding: seven catches were put down. Dias figured in important partnerships, first with wicketkeeper Amal Silva, who made a dour century, and later with Duleep Mendis, and fell five short of his own hundred.
India couldn't have begun on a more miserable note. Sunil Gavaskar's decision to bat in the middle order didn't help any, and Lalchand Rajput, Mohammad Azharuddin, and Dilip Vengsarkar, the only Indian in form, returned before stumps on the second day as the side tumbled to 3 for 3. Krishnamachari Srikkanth's 64 took them to a relatively respectable 88 for 5, and then some grimly determined batting from Gavaskar and Mohinder Amarnath hauled them to 244.
When Sri Lanka batted again, de Silva took 33 minutes to get off the mark, but once he did, he proceeded to go berserk, racking up his maiden Test fifty. He and Dias took India's ordinary bowling apart. In one phase, 64 runs came off six overs. Eventually India were set a target of 348 to get in a day and a bit.
The next turning point came when Srikkanth and Vengsarkar were out in quick succession - though Vengsarkar was anything but quick to leave the crease after he was adjuged caught behind. "I was shocked when he stood his ground," Ratnayake, the bowler in question, remembered.
Vengsarkar wasn't the only Indian with a complaint against the umpiring. "The number of no-balls given against us and them clearly shows the home side enjoyed advantage," Kapil said. Dias for his part felt Sri Lanka had earned their win. "The umpiring might not have been up to the mark, but we fought hard for our victory and it wasn't given to us."
When India slipped to 98 for 7 it seemed all over bar the shouting, but Kapil was not one to give up easily. As if to register his anger at both the failure of his batsmen and the umpiring, he stuck around, supported by Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, who batted gamely despite a broken thumb. Still, they were only delaying the inevitable.
The crowd was baying for blood as Ratnayake started the first of the mandatory overs. On the third ball, it happened: "I bowled a slower one," he said. "Kapil committed early, pushing it back to my right. I threw myself as far as I could and held on to the catch."
Whether, as Dias said, the Indians were complacent, or it had to do with the lack of practice and adjustment as Kapil had it, history had been made. "'Big Brother' was cut to size," Rajan wrote.