The drama of Test cricket rose to new heights as the sound of a helicopter filled Asgiriya Stadium. Reminiscent of a scene from Apocalypse Now, the machine had appeared, dark green and menacing, over the adjoining hill, out of tropical vegetation, and play stopped as it swept low over the back of the ground, touched down briefly, then headed towards Colombo. With it went any possible chance Australia might have had of turning round a Test Sri Lanka always deserved to win.
On board were Steve Waugh, with a badly broken nose, and Gillespie, with a broken leg that would keep him out of the national side throughout the Australian season. They had crashed, horrifically, as Waugh ran back from square leg and Gillespie came in from the boundary, both trying to catch the Sri Lankan vice-captain, Jayawardene. The ball always seemed destined to fall between them.
This freak accident represented Australia's lowest point on a rare lowly tour. When it happened on the second morning, Sri Lanka were already 139 for three in reply to Australia's 188, and threatening to bat them out of the match. Jayawardene and de Silva ran two but abandoned a third when they saw the Australians had forgotten the ball and were huddled around their fallen colleagues. Play was held up for six minutes while they received treatment before Gillespie was carried from the field.
Little had gone right for Steve Waugh since winning the toss had given Australia a record 13 in succession. Minutes before lunch on the opening day, Australia had crumbled to a staggering 60 for seven, first against the left-arm seam attack of Vaas and Zoysa, then the off-spin of Muralitharan. A face-saving century partnership between Ponting and Gillespie was the only high point of a dreadful day's batting. Gillespie stuck for more than two hours, scoring 41, while Ponting remained until the end. On 96, with only McGrath for support, he was in two minds about how best to snatch a hundred and pushed a catch back to Murali.
Sri Lanka were coasting at 177 for three in reply, but fell victim to Warne and inexperience: they were all out for 234, a lead of just 46. Back in the Test side after being dropped in the West Indies, and now acting-captain in Waugh's absence, Warne bowled beautifully for five wickets. Only de Silva, with a patient and polished 78, lasting three hours and containing 13 fours, and Jayawardene, with a more fortunate 46, offered significant contributions. But Australia's batting soon failed again. Without their captain and down to nine men, they mustered only 140, Murali and Vaas grabbing three wickets each. This time Ponting stood alone, with another fifty.
Sri Lanka needed just 95 for a historic first Test victory over Australia, but it was no simple affair. They had stumbled to 39 for three when the new batsman, Jayawardene, spooned the ball towards cover and bowler Miller gathered it left-handed at ground level after a desperate lunge. Australian celebrations were cut short, however. Umpire Manuel, apparently fooled by a puff of dust from Jayawardene's bat, believed it had been a bump ball, despite its slow, looping trajectory, and did not choose to consult either his colleague at square leg or the third umpire. Miller did remove Jayawardene a few overs later, leaving Sri Lanka an uneasy 60 for four, but the old firm of Ranatunga and de Silva ensured glory would not drown in a sea of panic. Riding his luck with the cheeky approach that so annoys the Australians, Ranatunga survived a desperately close lbw appeal and a dropped catch before scoring, then broke the game open with a four and six off successive balls from Warne.
Excitement mounted with every delivery, amid rhythmic clapping and wild cheering. The small and picturesque ground was suddenly so full that the crowd spilled out in front of the sightscreen at one end and could not be moved by police. In the end, Sri Lanka scrambled to a six-wicket victory after three days of drama, tension and controversy. It was 14 years to the day since they won their first Test - against India at the P. Sara Stadium in Colombo. Well as Australia fought, the better team won.
Men of the Match: P. A. de Silva and R. T. Ponting.