Five crazy Sri Lankan cricket stories in 2019
Starring: Angelo Mathews, Kusal Perera, Lasith Malinga, Chandika Hathurusingha and Bhanuka Rajapaksa
England are ODI world champions, and India have one of the most fearsome pace attacks around, but if cricket is currently raising the bar for absurdity, it's because of Sri Lanka, the game's most insane proponents. Here are five of the craziest happenings in Sri Lankan cricket in a year that is not even close to finished.
The Test series win in South Africa
Kusal Perera, who had only made one previous century against Zimbabwe, produced one of the most spectacular Test innings of all time as Sri Lanka chased down 304 for victory. But as ridiculous as that innings from this player was, the remainder of that series was no less outlandish. Dimuth Karunaratne had been thrown the captaincy just days before the Durban Test, following Sri Lanka's nightmare tour of Australia, in which a small hospital's worth of Sri Lanka players were injured. Thanks to those injuries, Sri Lanka's frontline attack consisted of a spinner on debut, and two fast bowlers who had played fewer than five Tests. Sri Lanka's most reliable batsman, Angelo Mathews, was also missing thanks to injury.
All of this should have sent Sri Lanka spiraling into a whitewash (against them), and yet, from this chaos, they fashioned inexplicably valiant fightbacks. Not only winning that first match with a last-wicket stand worth 78, they also kept South Africa within striking range in a 19-wicket second day in Port Elizabeth, before dominating the fourth innings of that second Test with the bat. Only two other nations had ever won a series in South Africa before. The jaw-dropping surprise wasn't just that Sri Lanka had won in South Africa, but that this particular team, with zero great players in its ranks, with a host of very inexperience players, led by a rookie captain, pulled off a whitewash. Many months later, it is still difficult to wrap your mind around.
Angelo Mathews' 115kph stunner
Angelo Mathews hadn't bowled a single ball in eight months. Not in internationals, not in domestic cricket, not in the nets, probably not even in his dreams. And yet, when Nicholas Pooran was hitting boundaries like he had a rocket launcher in his bat, and West Indies needed only 31 from three overs, Mathews tapped captain Karunaratne on the shoulder and offered to bowl an over. At the World Cup, no less. Karunaratne, who had used up most of his frontline bowling options trying to bowl West Indies out earlier, had little choice but to accept.
So in Mathews ambles, at this supremely confident young batsman on 118, and sends down not a bouncer, not a yorker, not even a decent top-of-off stump length ball, but a floated wide half-volley at all of 115kph. And what does Pooran do, but edge it straight to the wicketkeeper. It's a ball that 99 times out of 100, he would flay through the covers. Instead, he gave up his wicket to maybe the most unintimidating ball he'd faced all day.
Misadventures in coach-sacking
Sri Lanka Cricket, prodded by the sports minister, decided it really did not like coach Chandika Hathurusingha. Since coming on, Hathurusingha actually made slight improvements to Sri Lanka's win record, but that's not important. What's important is the board and the minister did not like the fact that Hathurusingha was being paid so much for modest returns. Never mind that it was the same group of board members that had agreed to Hathurusingha's very high salary after practically begging him to come aboard just 19 months previously.
SLC then duly suspended Hathurusingha soon after the World Cup, but wait, what's this? It discovers that according to Hathurusingha's very strong contract (the one, that again, the same board members had signed off on), the board would have to pay an astronomical sum to let him go this far ahead of the end of his contractual term. So, for months now, SLC has been trying and failing to sack its own coach, while their lawyers trade letters. The whole time, Hathurusingha is being paid his handsome salary, for essentially sitting around.
The T20I series win in Pakistan
Although they were T20I champions as recently as in 2014, Sri Lanka are such a mediocre T20I side now that they will have to play the qualifying round of next year's T20 World Cup in order to progress to the main event. Ahead of the tour of Pakistan, ten major players withdrew from the trip due to security concerns, substantially weakening what was already a weak side.
Or, so we thought. What wound up happening is that this Sri Lanka team, which started the series with seven players who had played fewer than 10 T20Is, didn't just beat Pakistan, the top-ranked T20I side in the world - they thumped them. The margin of victory in the first match was 64 runs. In the second, it was 35 runs. Sri Lanka's best batsman of the series so far is Bhanuka Rajapaksa, who had not played an international before this tour, and whose domestic record in no way suggests that he should have.
Early in the World Cup, England captain Eoin Morgan misheard a question and went on to say that Sri Lanka were the surprise pick of the tournament, because they had selected "ten new members" in their squad, including a "a couple of guys I've never played against". This would turn out to be prophetic weeks later, when Sri Lanka delivered maybe the surprise of the group stages.
Having lost badly to New Zealand and Australia, and having barely scraped through against Afghanistan, Sri Lanka were expected to be trounced by England, particularly in light of the fact that England had thumped them in Sri Lanka late last year. A big loss seemed even more likely after Sri Lanka belly-crawled their way to 232 for 9. But then Lasith Malinga took four wickets, Dhananjaya de Silva claimed three, and Sri Lanka shut the mighty England batting order down for 212. And, in doing so, shook up the World Cup's group stage.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf