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'We never expected to do it' - Karunaratne on a high after historic win

The culture of togetherness within the squad was the main reason for the upturn in fortunes, Sri Lanka's captain has said

The Sri Lankans celebrate their eight-wicket win in Port Elizabeth, South Africa v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Port Elizabeth, 3rd day, February 23, 2019

The Sri Lankans celebrate their eight-wicket win in Port Elizabeth  •  Getty Images

Sri Lanka have made history in South Africa, becoming only the third team overall - after England and Australia - and the first from Asia to breach the fortress in a Test series.
It came against all calculations. After all, Sri Lanka have had very few reasons to cheer on the cricket field - or off it, for that matter - in recent months. Not to forget they had a new captain in the form of Dimuth Karunaratne for the series, with Dinesh Chandimal getting the axe after two huge defeats in Australia. The sword was hanging over coach Chandika Hathurusingha's head too, and more than one key player picked up injuries and dropped out.
"Beating South Africa two-nil isn't easy. When we came here, we were underdogs. But we learnt a lot of things on previous tours, and the players executed really well in these conditions. That's why we are here. It's a great achievement for us," Karunaratne gushed after Kusal Mendis and Oshada Fernando struck unbeaten half-centuries to take Sri Lanka to an eight-wicket win in Port Elizabeth for a series sweep.
We had a few discussions, what I expect, what the management expects, and after that, we kept hanging together, we ate dinner together, we were together
Just how big was the result? Karunaratne admitted that even when, at various stages, there were words of positivity and hope thrown about in the dressing room, "we didn't take that seriously".
"I think we never expected to do it," he said. "But when we started winning, we had the faith. We wanted to compete. Winning is the ultimate goal, but if we do the right things, the result will definitely be good for us. Most of the guys said that but we didn't take that seriously, because when we have additional pressure, it's not easy."
Cut to Saturday, which started with Sri Lanka 60 for 2 in their chase of 197, and "we said when you go out there, you play your natural game; if you can score, if you can hit over the fielder, go for it. That's what in the first hour Mendis and Oshada did … when we played like that, South Africa were on the back foot."
Karunaratne stressed on "keep smiling" and "keep enjoying" as the main mantras for the players. After over two months on the road - with very little joy - the words proved useful.
"The tour (in New Zealand) started in December, so we are out of the country for three months. If you don't enjoy and if you can't free your mind, you can't give your best," Karunaratne said. "I know the talent we have, so we wanted to get those out. If you're enjoying yourself, you can definitely get those out."
With Mendis, who hasn't had his best run with the bat while on the road, the new captain had to work extra hard. "He was really feeling the pressure, he was thinking about the social media and everything," Karunaratne said. "But I said, 'When you get a good knock, you'll forget about it and we'll keep supporting you. It's high time you do it.' And he did it for me."
Mendis and Oshada pulled it off in the end, but Sri Lanka had many other heroes in Port Elizabeth after Kusal Perera had done it all almost single-handedly in the first Test in Durban.
South Africa only scored 222 and 128, and that was because the pace trio of Suranga Lakmal, Vishwa Fernando and Kasun Rajitha picked up 13 wickets between them and Dhananjaya de Silva, the lone spinner after Lasith Embuldeniya dislocated his left thumb, provided crucial breakthroughs in conditions not too suited to his brand of offspin.
And no, comments from South Africans like Keshav Maharaj didn't serve to spur the players on, according to the new captain, who now looks set to hold the job at least for the foreseeable future.
"We had a few discussions, what I expect, what the management expects, and after that, we kept hanging together, we ate dinner together, we were together," he said of the team culture he has tried to put in place. "When you make that culture, when you come overseas, only the squad will stay here … I wanted them to give their best and stay in the game all the time. They enjoyed a lot, still they are enjoying. It's really a great feeling, when we are playing together, and my job becomes easier.
"When we came here, no one thought we can win a series here. But if we back ourselves, we can win those matches. We wanted to do something good for the team, for the Sri Lankan fans. End of the day, we did a really good job."