It doesn’t get better than Durban 2011

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Image Courtesy AP Photo

What was Sri Lanka’s finest Test win overseas? Napier 1995, Rawalpindi 1999, Nottingham 2006, Headingley 2014 are some of the finest memories. So is Durban 2011. Watching the Sri Lankan cricket team engage in the first Test match there brings nostalgic memories.

Often in Sri Lanka’s historic wins, the performances of one or two players are highlighted. But Durban 2011 was different because there were some five match winners and Head Coach Geoff Marsh gets little credit for the work he did. Several recent Sri Lankan Test cricketers have rated Marsh as the best they have worked with. Pity that his stint lasted for less than six months.

Sri Lanka started off the tour of South Africa in shocking fashion losing the opening Test at Centurion by an innings and 81 runs inside three days. One of the few positives in that game was Dilhara Fernando knocking down, of all people, Jacques Kallis with a vicious bouncer.

With the game ending early, there was a nine-day gap between the first and second Tests and there was very little the players could do.

Marsh made sure that no one was going to get a day off.  The players had to turn up at the venue for the next two days as if they were playing the Test match. This is not to say that two days of intense training brought the best out of players. But there was much more Marsh did.

The bonding between players was excellent as everyone got to know each other better. Marsh paired up a senior player with a junior player and the whole of next week the players had to forget about their families and spend time with their mates. Taking them out for dinner and coffee and chatting up on the game and how they overcame tough situations got the younger players into a groove.

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For example, Dinesh Chandimal was paired up with Kumar Sangakkara. Dimuth Karunaratne was in the safe hands of Mahela Jayawardene while Lahiru Thirimanne was put alongside T.M. Dilshan. These young players learned much spending time with their seniors.

For their luck, the Sri Lankans were presented with a dry surface when they turned up in Durban. This was the Boxing Day Test match and Brett Procter, the curator in Durban, wanted the spectators to enjoy some good cricket in the festive season. That backfired.

Sri Lanka had dropped their wicketkeeper Kaushal Silva and handed Dinesh Chandimal his Test debut. Chandimal was outstanding, making twin half-centuries in the two innings. Just 22-years-old then, he played the four-pronged South African attack comprising Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Marchant De Lange and Jacques Kallis expertly. He wasn’t intimidated by the short ball either, unlike at present.

Sri Lanka’s first innings total of 338 was propelled by Tilan Samaraweera, who scored a hundred. Tilan had been dropped for the tour of UAE prior to the South African series and sheer pressure by media forced the selectors to bring him back. Tilan celebrated his milestone of becoming only the second Sri Lankan to score a hundred in South Africa with his machine gun celebrations. Shaun Pollock in commentaries said that he may well have been shooting at the selectors.

The 170 run lead Sri Lanka took in the first innings was vital. The man who helped Sri Lanka bowl out South Africa for 168 was Chanaka Welegedera. The left-arm seamer was on the money from ball one and finished with a five wicket haul.

Kumar Sangakkara’s form in the series had been dodgy. He had managed scores of 1 and 2 in Centurion and was dismissed for a duck in the first innings of the Durban game. He was dropped on zero in the second essay and bounced back to score a hundred to achieve one of his dreams of scoring a century in South Africa.

The hosts were never going to chase 450. A dry fourth innings surface was too good for Rangana Herath, who was named Man of the Match after taking a match bag of nine wickets.

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Captain Dilshan was unstoppable at the post match media briefing. After the humiliating defeat in Centurion former South African captain Kepler Wessels had suggested that the Proteas should play their ‘A’ team for the rest of the summer against a weak opposition. Dilshan asked whether South Africa were ready to play Sri Lanka ‘A’ after the 208 run defeat. 

This was also the game where Jacques Kallis bagged a first ever pair. South African media felt that he was on the wane and losing his eye-sight. That was a very bad mistake as Kallis slammed a double hundred in the next Test in Cape Town.

Marsh and Dilshan were over the moon that they were able to win a Test match in South Africa. But they had little clue that there were undercurrents working against them. Both were sacked mere weeks after the historic win over South Africa. Marsh went onto successfully sue Sri Lanka Cricket for unlawful termination of contract. Dilshan chose to suffer in silence. There had been a coup. A bloodless coup!