Reminiscing Dilshan’s finest hour as captain

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Image courtesy AFP

Earlier this week, Cricket South Africa announced their summer schedule for the 2018-2019 season where Sri Lanka will be one of the touring sides. One of the Tests in the two match series has been assigned to Durban.

One of the finest moments in Sri Lankan sporting history was recorded in Durban’s Kingsmead cricket ground, which is just a stone’s throw away from the Indian ocean. When Dinesh Chandimal’s side play there in February, it will bring back fond memories.

Durban is hot. Steaming hot. The conditions are very similar to Batticaloa. The Sri Lankans will enjoy the venue not only for the humid weather, but because the wicket is drier compared to the ones that they will come across at the Highveld like the Wanderers and Centurion or the ones in the Western Cape like Newlands.

The Sri Lankas have a bit of history in Durban. It was here during the 2003 ICC Cricket World Cup that Sanath Jayasuriya’s side ended the hosts’ and tournament favourites campaign after that infamous DuckworthLewis run calculation mix up. Poor Shaun Pollock, one of the nicest men you will ever come across in cricket, paid with his job as South Africa failed to go beyond the first round.

In 2011, Sri Lanka went into South Africa with not much momentum behind them. Under T.M. Dilshan they had suffered three heavy series losses in a row to Australia, England and Pakistan and the losing trend looked to be continuing as they suffered a massive innings defeat inside three days at the Centurion.

With the opening game ending two days before schedule, the Sri Lankans were left with nine days prior to the next Test in Durban on Boxing Day. In Geoff Marsh, they had a coach who was well versed in dealing with adversity.

Sri Lanka was Marsh’s third international team and with Australia he had achieved it all. Marsh is one of the two people in the sport to have won both the Ashes and World Cup as a player and coach with Darren Lehmann being the other.

Marsh apparently spoke his heart out after the Centurion humiliation and ordered that for the remaining two days of the Test match his players were going to turn up at the venue as if they were playing the Test match. As during games, the day was divided into three sessions. They would break for lunch and tea and work on batting in the morning and bowling in the afternoon while the final session was dedicated to fielding and fitness. That left the tourists exhausted and there was no taking the foot off the pedal once the team reached Durban.

Marsh, in a bid to help young players bond with the seniors, paired a senior and junior together. Dinesh Chandimal was put with Kumar Sangakkara, Dimuth Karunaratne was paired up with Mahela Jayawardene while Dilshan partnered Lahiru Thirimanne. The seniors had to take the juniors out for dinners and on Christmas eve the players had to exchange gifts.

The younger ones loved the experience. A nervous Chandimal was well equipped to make his Test debut having spent valuable time with Sangakkara.

Chandimal hit two crucial half-centuries in the game but there were several other main contributors.

During their previous visits to South Africa, Sri Lanka had been beaten handsomely. Prior to the Durban game, Sri Lanka had played eight Tests in South Africa and had drawn only one. Four of the seven defeats had been by an innings including their heaviest defeat in Test cricket which was recorded in Cape Town in January 2002 (by an innings and 229 runs).

Tilan Samaraweera, who had been controversially dropped for the SSC Test against Australia was on comeback trial. There was a public outcry as Samaraweera was axed for the SSC game, a venue where he averaged 77 in Tests. He was overlooked for the tour of UAE that followed but the selectors were forced to bring him back to South Africa as there was quite a bit of criticism.

Samaraweera made it a memorable comeback making a hundred in the first innings. As he reached three figures, Samaraweera brought up his famous machine gun celebrations and Pollock in commentary suggested that he may well have been shooting at the selectors!

Left-arm seamer Chanaka Welegedera was outstanding with the new ball claiming a five wicket haul. Take a look at some of his victims in the first innings – Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, A.B. de Villers and Has him Amla. It was the best bowling figures by a Sri Lankan seamer in South Africa until Lahiru Kumara improved on it during the last tour in 2017.

Any Sri Lankan win is incomplete without a Sangakkara masterclass. The star batsman had a wretched series until the second innings in Durban. In Centurion he managed scores of one and two, caught behind off Vernon Philander on both occasions.

In the first innings in Durban, he was dismissed for a third ball duck, also caught behind but this time to debutant Marchant de Lange. The left-hander’s troubles with the moving ball continued in the second innings as he edged Morne Morkel when on three, but Graeme Smith failed to hold onto the catch at first slip. That was the piece of luck the master batsman needed and from thereon Sangakkara put the bowlers to the sword with some elegant drives and went onto post his maiden Test hundred in South Africa.

His effort helped Sri Lanka to set South Africa a target of 450. The game was beyond the hosts’ reach, but the question was whether the tourists had the bowling nucleus to take ten wickets against a formidable batting line-up. Left-arm spinner Rangana Herath was their hero taking a five wicket haul. Among his victims were King Kallis, who picked up a pair for the first time in his career. Sri Lanka won by 208 runs and that remains their only win on South African soil. Herath finished with nine wickets and was Man of the Match. The ODI series that followed was keenly fought and Sri Lanka narrowly lost the series 2-3. It was the most successful tour of South Africa undertaken by a sub-continent side by far at the time.

Towards the end of the series, there were strange rumours that Dilshan and Marsh were going to be axed. Dilshan met the press after the final game in Johannesburg and confirmed that he had no intentions of stepping down and added that his job was not in danger. Rightly so as the team had done quite well in South Africa. However, less than 24 hours later, adding another twist to the tale, Sri Lanka Cricket announced that the captain had stepped down. There had been abloodless coup!