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Silken Aravinda, stoic Arjuna, and magical Mahela

With Sri Lanka set to begin their 250th Test in Galle, we look back at ten of their most gripping matches

Murali's match: Muralitharan took 16 wickets at The Oval in 1998  •  Getty Images

Murali's match: Muralitharan took 16 wickets at The Oval in 1998  •  Getty Images

v Australia, 1989, Hobart
Sri Lanka were at their weakest in the '80s. Test status had only been achieved in 1982, and some teams were reluctant to tour Sri Lanka for a mix of cricketing and political reasons. But though Muttiah Muralitharan's Australian travails were still six years away, the seeds of a one-sided rivalry were sown in Hobart.
Having put Australia in to bat, Rumesh Ratnayake extracted bounce and movement from a fresh surface to help dismiss Australia for 224 before stumps on the first day. Roshan Mahanama and Aravinda de Silva's 128-run stand took Sri Lanka to 216.
Australia's superior quality then asserted itself. They made 513 for 5 declared. Left with five sessions to bat out, Sri Lanka made a dogged effort to save the Test, but were unable to resist Greg Cambpell and Merv Hughes, eventually losing by 173 runs.
This Test was one of many Sri Lanka-Australia matches to be played in tense circumstances. Afterwards captain Arjuna Ranatunga said the game had been reduced "to the level of a street fight" particularly by Australian sledging. There were also several instances of physical contact between players, during one of which Rumesh Ratnayake had been supposedly called a "black c***". In later years, Ranatunga said his particular aggression towards Australia had been shaped by this Test.
v Australia, 1992, SSC, Colombo
This one is still remembered as one of Sri Lanka's greatest heartbreaks. Several of those who played the Test have said it would have been remembered as one of the best ever had it been widely televised.
Hosting a Test team for the first time in five years, Sri Lanka swung Australia out for 256 before Asanka Gurusinha and Ranatunga hit hundreds. On debut, wicketkeeper-batsman Romesh Kaluwitharana then struck the sparkling 132 off 158 balls that he spent the rest of his Test career trying to match. Trailing by 291, Australia cobbled together a score of 471, with David Boon, Jones, Mark Waugh and Greg Matthews all hitting fifties, while each of the other seven batsmen got to double figures.
At 127 for 2, Sri Lanka were sailing to the target of 181 when they lost five quick wickets to Craig McDermott and Matthews. Hopes were not extinguished at 150 for 7, but then a young Australian legspinner who had been carted for 122 for 0 in the first innings made his mark. Shane Warne took the three final wickets and put what had been a modest career till then on a fresh heading.
"It was like someone had died," said Kaluwitharana of the mood in the Sri Lanka dressing room. "Out of 15 sessions, we dominated fourteen and a half but lost the match in half a session. The rooms at the SSC are separated by a flimsy wall. We heard them yelling their victory song, and each time they yelled and shouted, it was like I was being stabbed with a knife in the chest over and over again. I cried."
v England, 1998, The Oval
England thrust their arm out for a genial handshake, handing a one-Test tour to ODI world champions Sri Lanka, when the tourists were leaning in for a kiss on both cheeks. They felt they deserved better and set about proving it.
Strangely, Ranatunga invited England to bat on what appeared a very dry surface, but though both teams were surprised by this, Sri Lanka had the quality to overcome. England made 445, but Sanath Jayasuriya's 213 off 278 balls, and de Silva's 152, set the visitors up with a lead of 146 on the fourth day.
The rest was all Murali. On what was now a dustbowl, his wicked offbreak was at its most elemental. Some England batsmen tried to play him from the crease. Others ran out to him. But almost all succumbed, giving him innings figures of 9 for 65 and 16 wickets in the match.
v South Africa, 2000, Kandy
Another of those poorly remembered Tests, but one that eventually came to a supremely gripping conclusion.
Having been resoundingly beaten in the first Test, in Galle, South Africa began poorly at Asigiriya. They were 34 for 5 before Lance Klusener's 118 lifted them to 253. Sri Lanka then appeared to be in total control at 286 for 5 before a collapse set in motion by Shaun Pollock saw them establish a lead of only 55.
In the third innings Jacques Kallis battled out a 208-ball 87 on a surface Wisden describes as now having "exotic and quirky bounce". Forging partnerships with Jonty Rhodes and the lower middle order, he pushed the visitors' lead out to 176.
Drama really began to take hold in the fourth innings. By the 12th over, Sri Lanka were 21 for 4. Russel Arnold and a flowing, imperious Ranatunga put on 109 together, and it took an outstanding Rhodes catch at short leg to dismiss Ranatunga for 88. But Sri Lanka only needed 16 runs with three wickets in hand. Upul Chandana was yorked by Klusener and Chaminda Vaas was run out. Next ball, Murali was given caught behind - "unkindly," according to Wisden - and South Africa had snatched an unlikely victory by seven runs.
v Pakistan, 2000, Rawalpindi
A batting collapse, a century from a debutant, defiant lower-order stands, a broken hand, a strained groin, botched wickets, and a riveting chase - this match had all the drama that had come to define Test cricket in Pakistan during the time.
After Murali and Pramodya Wickramasinghe had shot out a Pakistan XI featuring Saeed Anwar, Yousuf Youhana and Inzamam-ul-Haq for 187, one of Aravinda's more measured hundreds formed the spine of a strong Sri Lanka reply. Thanks also in part to Vaas, who made 53 not out, and the absence of Wasim Akram, who could only bowl 2.1 overs before injury forced him off the field, Sri Lanka established a lead of 171.
But of course, if there is a side capable of overturning such deficits it is Pakistan. Their hero of the third innings was 22-year-old Younis Khan, who resisted Murali to hit 107 on debut, and was joined in a 145-run ninth-wicket stand by a limping Wasim.
Jayasuriya's fifty kept Sri Lanka in the hunt for the target of 220, but when the ball became sufficiently old, they were dealt several quick blows. Ranatunga was forced to leave the field when a Waqar bouncer broke the thumb of his bottom hand.
But when two more wickets fell, Ranatunga was forced to resume his innings, his thumb so heavily strapped that his hand seemed encased in a boxing glove, according to Sri Lanka's Daily News. The Ranatunga-Kaluwitharana ninth-wicket stand then benefited from those age-old Pakistan fielding staples, the missed run-out and the dropped catch, and took the team to victory, which was cause enough for captain Jayasuriya to turn one of Pakistan's most fabled rallying cries against the home team. "As long as Ranatunga was there, we were convinced we could win," he said. "He played a gem of an innings, like an injured tiger."
v South Africa, 2002, Centurion
Sri Lanka's 323, which featured Hashan Tillakaratne's signature slow-burn hundred against South Africa's five-man seam attack, was eclipsed by a 132-run seventh-wicket stand between Pollock and Mark Boucher that took South Africa to 448.
Sri Lanka seemed headed for another big defeat at 60 for 2 in reply, before batting's most prolific pair set about an early rendition of their work. This time, it was Kumar Sangakkara who was free and flowing, hitting 15 fours in his 89, while Mahela Jayawardene held firm at the other end. Towards the end of the fourth day they twice declined offers of bad light. With rain in the air and lightning in the skies, they put on 119. The final day began with an awful lbw decision against Jayawardene, and upon his departure, the rest of the innings unravelled. Having been 180 for 3, Sri Lanka wound up 245 all out, with a mere 121 to defend.
Their seamers managed to reduce South Africa to 44 for 5. But between Boucher and Neil McKenzie the pressure was defused and South Africa won by three wickets.
v England, 2006, Lord's
For a team not famed for its fighting draws, Sri Lanka produced an epic of the escapology genre in 2006. England hit 551 for 5 declared - Kevin Pietersen and Marcus Trescothick making hundreds.
Then, with Matthew Hoggard and Andrew Flintoff running at them, came Sri Lanka's collapse. Four of the top seven made ducks, and only Jayawardene crossed fifty, as Sri Lanka ended up 359 runs behind at the end of the first innings. England's first mistake, perhaps, was to ask Sri Lanka to follow on after their bowlers had delivered 55 overs. There remained more than seven sessions to play. Their next six mistakes were dropped catches - dourly capitalised on by Sri Lanka's batsmen.
It was new captain Jayawardene who provided the tower in Sri Lanka's great wall, batting six hours for 119, while Sangakkara, Upul Tharanga and Tillakaratne Dilshan, Vaas, Nuwan Kulasekara and nightwatchman Farveez Maharoof provided half-centuries. All told, Sri Lanka's resistance stretched to 199 overs, which took roughly 14 hours to bowl.
v South Africa, 2006, P Sara Oval
This was perhaps the most enthralling of Sri Lanka's 249 Tests, and had a finish to fray adamantine nerves.
Lining up on either side were excellent attacks. South Africa had Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and a young Dale Steyn in their XI, with Nicky Boje providing the spin. There were Vaas and Murali for Sri Lanka, of course, but also Lasith Malinga, along with Maharoof. The batting stocks were strong too - Jayawardene, Sangakkara and Jayasuriya against Herschelle Gibbs and youngsters AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla - but South Africa will have felt the absence of Graeme Smith, and particularly Jacques Kallis.
Having been batted into the ground by Jayawardene and Sangakkara in the previous match (the one with the 624-run stand), then spun into oblivion by Murali, South Africa began this Test by attacking their tormentors with blade and ball. They were successful to a point. Ashwell Prince and de Villiers put on a fifth-wicket partnership that yielded 161 and rescued the team from 70 for 4. South Africa made 361 and then dismissed Jayawardene and Sangakkara cheaply.
Lower-middle-order runs for Sri Lanka narrowed the deficit to 40, before Gibbs, and later Boucher, set to work, though on a now-gripping surface they were more wary of Murali, who took seven wickets. With more than five sessions to play, a target of 352 was set.
The chase was set off at pace by Jayasuriya, whose 73 off 74 balls featured nine fours and three sixes, but three Boje wickets soon ratcheted up the tension, and had Sri Lanka at 201 for 5. Though he played that rearguard innings at Lord's, and made the highest score ever by a right-hander the previous week, it is his 123 in this match that was perhaps Jayawardene's finest innings - perhaps the greatest ever by a Sri Lankan. He defused Boje better than his team-mates, and sizing up the pitch to omit the riskier of his strokes, became the first centurion in the match.
By lunch on the fifth day Sri Lanka were 19 from victory with four wickets still in hand, but peril awaited them on the other side of the break. Jayawardene fell to Boje, then Vaas, and Murali fell quickly to Hall. It was left to Maharoof to take the single that tied the game, and the No. 11, Malinga, to scamper the run that completed Sri Lanka's highest successful chase.
v England, 2014, Headingley
The previous match, at Lord's, had ended in a pulsating draw, when Sri Lanka's No. 11, Nuwan Pradeep, overturned an lbw decision on the penultimate ball, then had an outside edge fall short of the slips to end the match. At Headingley, drama took hold on day one and did not let up until the fevered conclusion.
Stuart Broad's second Test hat-trick lit up the tail end of a first day. Thanks to a hundred from opener Sam Robson, England passed Sri Lanka's 257 only two wickets down, but then seamers Shaminda Eranga and Angelo Mathews set in motion a collapse that limited England's lead to 108.
With the pitch still offering plenty to seam bowlers, Sri Lanka battled to 268 for 4. But when Jayawardene, Dinesh Chandimal and Dhammika Prasad all fell in quick succession on the fourth morning, captain Mathews threw his bat to the ground in disgust, a sufficient score now seeming beyond them.
Perhaps that moment of frustration was the catalyst Mathews needed, because having batted sanely until then, he suddenly began laying waste to the England attack. He ran at the quicks and clattered them over midwicket, crashed Moeen Ali's offspin behind point, and before long, while Rangana Herath progressed merrily himself, Sri Lanka had looted 149 runs in 36.2 overs. They set England 350 for victory, and then Prasad ripped out the top four in a single spell, before Herath dismissed the nightwatchman to leave England 57 for 5 overnight.
The next morning, Sri Lanka's fielders made a verbal dartboard out of Joe Root, who had sniped at them through the tour, but Moeen resisted valiantly at the other end. The next three wickets took an age to come. Through the final hour, No. 11 James Anderson kept Moeen dour company, as Mathews made bowling changes almost every over, like a man searching through all his pockets for lost cash. It came down to the penultimate ball. Eranga sent it at Anderson's head, and the resultant edge was pulled down by Herath, sparking jubilation for Sri Lanka, and tears for Anderson.
v India, 2015, Galle
On a tacky-but-turning first day surface, Sri Lanka had allowed themselves to be dismissed for 183. A vaunted India top order then asserted itself upon the match - Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli hitting hundreds in the response to establish a lead of 192.
When Sri Lanka lost three wickets for five runs in the third innings, the Test seemed destined to be done by the end of the third day. Sangakkara and Mathews resisted for a little, but the wickets kept falling. When Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne came to the crease, five wickets remained, and parity was still 97 runs off.
Early in that partnership both batsmen were wrongly given not out, and then the day descended into mayhem. Chandimal began slog-sweeping first, then driving, cutting, pulling and reverse-slapping. India continued to be disciplined with the ball, and Kohli continued to keep the infield tight, but Chandimal kept marauding, and after 100 balls had a hundred. The boundaries flowed even after Thirimanne had been dismissed and Jehan Mubarak had come to the crease. Chandimal remained not out on 162 and Sri Lanka set India a target of 176. The next day, Herath scythed through India's batting and sealed the unlikely win.

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