For the first time in the Test, it feels like Sri Lanka have batsmen at the crease, instead of Colombo traffic policemen redirecting oncoming balls towards the slips. The most experienced men in the batting order are in the middle. Dinesh Chandimal leaps back and across to crack Vernon Philander through the covers. Angelo Mathews whip-sweeps Keshav Maharaj through backward square leg next over. For the first time, with the bat, they look like they have the will to fight.

Newlands though, is paying them only the scantest attention. The stands are far from full. Even those watching know there is no tension in this fight.

Around lunchtime, Cricket South Africa issues a press release confirming Australia will visit for four Tests in February and March next year. Bangladesh were already announced as the early summer tour. Sri Lanka were supposed to return to South Africa in between those tours, but it looks increasingly likely that they have been jilted. CSA are understood to be wooing India for that home series instead.


In 1998, Sri Lanka won a Test at The Oval and Arjuna Ranatunga delivered one of cricket's great boasts. Sri Lanka were World Champions by then, but had never won a Test in England. In fact, they had never even played a series - this having been a one-off game.

But when Ranatunga strutted into the press conference, he crowed that the win had never really been in doubt. "The reason I put England into bat on a flat pitch," he said, "is because otherwise, we would have bowled them out too quickly and enforced the follow-on - I wanted my spinner to have some rest." You can imagine his voice ringing with condescension, can't you? The smirk that must have been on his face?

Sri Lanka's subsequent tours to England have all been multi-match affairs. There are a couple of wonderful series among them: the 1-1 draw in 2006, for example, or the 1-0 victory in 2014 in which both matches went down to the last two balls.

But few people outside the island really refer to these as classics. Just like few outsiders remember Ranatunga's words as an all-time brag.

This has always been the way Sri Lankan cricket is perceived overseas. Even when runs are made and wickets taken. Even when matches are won, and the finishes are riveting, there is no one much to care.


The man who won Sri Lanka that Oval Test has lived the past two decades with a large chip upon his shoulder. He has taken 800 Test wickets, 534 ODI scalps, bamboozled a great Indian top order at the Feroz Shah Kotla, practically devoured them at home, won a World Cup, an IPL, Asia Cups, all while being one of the leading humanitarians in the sport, and yet, he finds his integrity constantly under siege.

Along the way, there is almost nothing he hasn't done to prove the legality of his action. He has passed the biomechanical tests and proved his doosra was within extension limits. He has paraded his variations on camera while wearing an inflexible plaster cast. To show off his double-jointed shoulder, he has lost his shirt more often than a frat boy at a keg party. In 2014, he even invited English journalists to his house and told them to play with his elbow, just to prove it was permanently bent.

Can you imagine any other cricket debate in which evidence stacks up so monumentally on one side, only for doubts to remain? Even now, intelligent cricket voices say things like: "There will always be an asterisk over him," or "they changed the law solely for his benefit". To call this intellectual laziness is inadequate, because for it to be laziness, the information required to come upon informed conclusion must be widely available. It is more like intellectual apathy. Maybe he didn't chuck, but who really cares?

Overseas, much of Sri Lankan cricket is about this fight for acceptance. Sri Lanka are often the precursor guest before bigger series begin. They are the names commentators haven't heard of, until they are the names they manglingly mispronounce.

Their best player, who if rationality prevailed should unequivocally be remembered as one of the greatest in his generation, is instead distrusted. He is only grudgingly included in the best player lists. His defining performances often get only faint praise.


In this Sri Lanka XI, there are no fewer than seven players who grew up and went to school in Basnahira (Western Province) where Colombo is. Two others are from Ruhuna (South), one more from Kandy (Central) and another from the bottom tip of Wayamba (Northwest). If you are unfamiliar with the geography, this may seem at first like a decent spread, but consider that in all, there are nine provinces.

The formerly war-struck regions in the north and east are yet to produce a Test cricketer, which is understandable. But there have also been barely a handful of Test cricketers from centres like Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa or Badulla, which is not. Cricket is no less popular in those parts, but promising young players are often unwilling to ditch the remainder of their prospects. It is too great a risk to move to Colombo and join a big club.

This should be a problem that Sri Lanka Cricket have found a solution to by now. It is one that has long been in stark evidence for at least two decades. But instead of taking cricket meaningfully into the provinces, a series of SLC boards has chosen to back an archaic club model, which is enshrined, in part, in the board's constitution. Instead of having clearheaded cricket administrators, Sri Lanka is beset by political show ponies and corporate yes men.

This puts the nation's cricket in a difficult place, because although it is true Sri Lanka are without the population of India, or Pakistan, or Bangladesh, and do not have the financial stability of South Africa, England, or Australia, what slim resources they do command, they harness with comical inefficiency.


Chandimal and Mathews knock gloves as they depart the field at stumps. They have forged Sri Lanka's best partnership of the match, but their association has only yielded 61. To even dream of a win or draw from this position is ludicrous, and it would be a small miracle even to make it through the next three sessions. CSA will not be expecting gate earnings on day five.

Every time Sri Lanka play overseas, they are not merely competing for runs and wickets, they fight for relevance, they fight to be thought of, they fight to matter, they fight for the right to play the next tour.

But instead of a well-drilled professional outfit representative of the whole of their cricket-loving island, they have XI guys from roughly the southwest quarter, who have been picked from a woeful first-class system, and whose existence most South African locals were barely even aware of, and whom they now have little desire to see again next summer.

In Port Elizabeth, and now at Newlands as well, Sri Lanka have continued to lose the fight.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando