First Test

Sri Lanka v South Africa, 2006

At Sinhalese Sports Club, Colombo, July 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 2006. Sri Lanka won by an innings and 153 runs. Toss: South Africa.

This match will forever be remembered for the batting of Sri Lanka's captain, Mahela Jayawardene, and Kumar Sangakkara, who destroyed 143 years of Wisden records with a quite devastating stand. They put on 624 for the third wicket, beating by 47 the largest partnership for any wicket in first-class cricket, anywhere, ever. Jayawardene made 374, the fourth-highest score in all Tests (and the highest by a right-hander), and Sangakkara fell just short of his own triple-century. There was still time for Muttiah Muralitharan to winkle out the South Africans, who batted much better in their second innings than their first - but not quite well enough for long enough.

Sri Lanka were responding to a feeble total of 169, South Africa's lowest against them. Briefly, the tourists' hopes were buoyed when both openers were snared by Steyn, the quickest (though most erratic) of the bowlers. But then Sangakkara was dropped in the gully, and bowled by a no-ball. These escapes gave the batsmen the jolt they needed, and after that they batted sublimely, motoring along during the final session at five an over to finish the first day only 41 runs behind, despite losing 13 overs to bad light.

If the first day was bad for the South Africans, the next was disastrous. Jayawardene and Sangakkara, batting with metronomic efficiency, waltzed through the second day...and into the third. They consolidated to start with, playing themselves in earnestly before effortlessly expanding the strokeplay. Their unblinking concentration allowed for near-perfect shot-selection, and the execution was of the highest quality, the ball rarely eluding the sweetest middle of their bats. The batting was clinical - but also relaxed and elegant.

The closest South Africa came to a breakthrough on the second day was in the final over, when an exhausted Boucher failed to reach down to a thin Sangakkara edge off Boje, who was the most effective of the bowlers, operating over the wicket for much of the innings and directing the ball into the rough. Ironically, he finished wicketless, his none for 221 from 65 overs being second only to Khan Mohammad's none for 259 for Pakistan against West Indies at Kingston in 1957-58 (when Garry Sobers made 365 not out) as the most expensive barren return in Tests. The seamers, meanwhile, struggled on a pitch that grew ever slower.

On the third day Jayawardene and Sangakkara - after a night of ice baths, rehydration salts and a relaxed Thai dinner with their wives - climbed higher and higher through the virgin snow of the batting mountain top. The most resonant landmark, for the locals, was Sanath Jayasuriya and Roshan Mahanama's 576, the highest Test partnership, set against India at Colombo's Premadasa Stadium in 1997-98 on a similarly anodyne pitch. That record was passed with four byes, and celebrated with an impromptu fireworks display that cloaked the ground in smoke. Those same extras helped the pair surpass Vijay Hazare and Gul Mohamed's 577-run stand in the Ranji Trophy in 1946- 47, the previous-highest partnership in all first-class cricket.

South Africa finally broke through when Sangakkara chased a wide reverse-swinging delivery from Hall and was caught behind for 287, made from 457 balls in 675 minutes, with 35 fours. The focus then shifted to Jayawardene, who had already reached his triple-century and was fast approaching Jayasuriya's 340 against India, the highest score by a Sri Lankan. That soon fell, too, and the crowd started to swell with spectators eager to see Brian Lara's 400 knocked off. But 26 runs short, Jayawardene lingered on his crease to a devilish delivery from Nel that cut in and scuttled along the ground to knock back his off stump, a dismissal that plunged a small and partisan crowd into anticlimactic depression. He had batted for 752 minutes, faced 572 balls, and hit 43 fours and a six.

Jayawardene declared at once, and Muralitharan set about the job of bowling South Africa out. They were 587 behind, and needed to bat for nearly seven sessions, a seemingly impossible task without major help from the weather. But this was a match full of the improbable, and the batsmen applied themselves much better than in the first innings. Encouraged by a pitch that refused to crumble, they showed great resilience, regaining sufficient self-respect to lift their hopes for the Second Test. Rudolph and Hall launched the rearguard with a stubborn opening stand of 165, Prince gritted out 61 from 182 balls, and Boucher survived nearly four hours for 85. But it still was not enough: Muralitharan, twirling away for 64 overs, slowly but surely prised out his victims, finishing with ten in the match for the third Test running, as South Africa succumbed for 434.

On the opening day, which seemed a very long time ago, the South Africans had sacrificed the advantage of winning the toss with some uninspired batting. Chaminda Vaas was absent, recovering from a hamstring injury, but the younger seamers capably filled the void. South Africa had talked beforehand about individual strategies to cope with Muralitharan, and the need to be positive and rotate the strike, but they were unable to summon the courage to implement their game plan. With the exception of de Villiers, who bristled with positive intent during his 65, the batsmen were virtually strokeless from the outset against Murali, who started by reeling off six maidens in eight overs. The batsmen's diffidence afforded him the scoreless comfort-zone in which he thrives, slowly working over his opponents, forcing them into mistakes, those customary features of cricket that the Sri Lankans somehow managed to avoid for nearly two days.

Man of the Match: D. P. M. D. Jayawardene.

© John Wisden & Co.