South Africa came into this three-match series riding on a rich vein of form, having won their past five series and losing just one of their last 17 Tests. Five months earlier, they had secured a 2-0 sweep in India and now aimed at repeating the dose in Sri Lanka on their second tour of the country, the first being in 1993 when they won 1-0.
But the off-field happenings could not have been more contrasting. These successes had come under the captaincy of Hansie Cronje, who was now a fallen figure after having admitted to match-fixing. Since the Indian tour, which was the focal point of the scandal, South African cricket had turned upside down and it was up to new captain Shaun Pollock to restore the team’s credibility.
In the first Test at Galle, South Africa ran into a Sri Lankan outfit smarting from a 2-0 reversal at home against Pakistan just three weeks earlier and were drubbed by an innings and 15 runs. The South African batsmen were bamboozled by the wiles of Muttiah Muralitharan, who took 13 wickets in the match.
A week after the lopsided opening duel, the teams met at the Asgiriya Stadium in Kandy for the second Test, played from July 30 to August 2. A year ago, Sri Lanka had posted a landmark win – which ultimately gave them the series – against Australia at this venue and now were well poised to secure a maiden series win over South Africa as well.
Sanath Jayasuriya opted to field after winning the toss, hoping that his bowlers would extract the maximum from the pitch which was initially a dry turner tailor-made for spin, but attained a fair share of moisture due to heavy rain prior to the opening day. It was evident that batting would be a challenge from the very outset.
Pacemen Chaminda Vaas and Nuwan Zoysa struck gold immediately, respectively sending back openers Gary Kirsten and Neil McKenzie for ducks within the first two overs. The introduction of off-spinners Muralitharan and Kumar Dharmasena only worsened things for the visitors.
Dharmasena castled Daryll Cullinan and Jonty Rhodes while ‘Murali’ accounted for Jacques Kallis at the other end. With the top five back in the pavillion, South Africa were tottering at 34/5 in the 19th over and could not have imagined a worse start to such a crucial Test match.
However, they found their saviours in Lance Klusener and Mark Boucher, who combined for a fortune-changing century stand at a fast clip. The two forged 124 runs in 33.1 overs for the sixth wicket – mixing caution with timely aggression – before Boucher was run out for a gutsy 60.
Pollock and Nicky Boje then fell in successive balls to Upul Chandana’s leg-spin, the score now reading 173/8. But Klusener carried on with intent and added 37 with Paul Adams for the ninth wicket and a priceless 43 with Nantie Hayward for the tenth.
‘Zulu’ remained unbeaten on 118 off 219 balls – his third Test hundred and arguably his finest innings ever – as South Africa wound up at a respectable 253. He hit 13 fours and two sixes and showed great application in keeping the spinning trio – who took seven wickets between them – at bay. Sri Lanka ended an absorbing first day at 15/0.
Openers Marvan Atapattu and Jayasuriya adopted a patient approach on the second morning as they realised 53 runs. Atapattu added another 56 with Russel Arnold for the second wicket as he frustrated the bowlers with his copybook technique. He was joined by Arjuna Ranatunga at 182/4 and the pair steered Sri Lanka to a lead of seven by the end of the day, with Atapattu on 107*.
Atapattu and Ranatunga stretched their partnership to 104 before Pollock trapped the former in front early on day three for 120 from 292 balls with 15 fours. This led to a lower-order collapse as South Africa fought back with quick wickets. Ranatunga was sixth out for 54, contentiously given LBW off a rising Hayward delivery.
The batsmen to follow failed to last long and the last six wickets thus fell for just 22 runs in 7.1 overs. Pollock was the pick of the bowlers with three wickets. Trailing by 55, South Africa again began poorly, with Zoysa removing McKenzie for the second time in the match with the score at 10.
Kirsten too fell cheaply, bowled by Dharmasena, and when Muralitharan got rid of Cullinan, South Africa were three down and still behind by five runs. Kallis put his hand up amid the crisis and produced a solid innings under pressure on a tough pitch. He found support in Rhodes, with whom he shared a fourth-wicket stand worth 71.
Jacques Kallis’ solid 87 in the second innings gave South Africa an opportunity in spite of conceding the first-innings lead (source – gettyimages)
Jayasuriya then dented the visitors with a key double-strike within the space of seven runs. He had both Rhodes and Klusener caught behind by young wicketkeeper Kumar Sangakkara to reduce the score to 128/5. Kallis looked good for a hundred but was castled by Muralitharan for 87 off 208 balls with six fours and a six.
Kallis’ dismissal meant that South Africa were ahead by 131 with just two wickets in hand. They ended the third day placed at 192/8. However on the fourth day, the Proteas’ tail wagged again – Boje and Adams put on 45 for the ninth wicket before Chandana dismissed the former and Hayward in four balls to restrict the final total to 231.
Not surprisingly, the spinners took eight of the wickets. Sri Lanka were thus left with over five sessions to score 177 runs and seal their first series win against South Africa. While the hosts had banked on their spinners, South Africa needed a good show from their fast bowlers to make a match of it.
They indeed provided the perfect start. Pollock had first-innings centurion Atapattu LBW off the very first ball of the chase. At the other end, Hayward sent back the dangerous Jayasuriya in the same manner off his first ball before having Mahela Jayawardene caught behind four balls later.
With both the openers out for golden ducks and the scoreboard reading a precarious 9/3, the visitors had seized the initiative. It soon became 21/4 as Kallis joined the party by taking Sangakkara’s wicket. Sri Lanka went to lunch at 41/4 with Arnold and Ranatunga in the middle.
The second session saw Ranatunga – playing his penultimate Test – launch a breathtaking counter-attack. The former captain caught the South African bowlers and fielders off guard with a flurry of piercing shots to the boundary. He reached his fifty in just 36 balls while Arnold played the anchoring role at the other end.
Arnold and Ranatunga put their team well on course for victory with a partnership of 109 that took only 23.3 overs. With 47 needed, six wickets in the bank and a rampant Ranatunga at the crease, Sri Lanka were firmly in the box seat. It was Boje who provided a much-needed opening by removing Arnold, LBW for 40.
In his penultimate Test, Arjuna Ranatunga smashed a rapid 88 to rescue Sri Lanka during their tense chase of 177 (source – espncricinfo.com)
Three runs later, Klusener scalped Dharmasena and South Africa were back in the hunt. Even then, they still needed to see Ranatunga’s back. The big moment arrived three balls before tea as the agile Rhodes caught Ranatunga at short-leg with a reflex catch off Boje. The score read 161/7 and the pendulum had swung.
Ranatunga scored 88 in just 103 balls, adorned with 15 fours, and also passed 5000 Test runs in the process. But his dismissal had ensured that the Sri Lankan tail was left with the tricky task of scoring 16 runs as the final session began. Klusener, in the thick of things as always, bowled Chandana with a yorker off the very first ball post tea.
The crowd at the picturesque ground was fast getting jittery as Zoysa joined his fellow paceman Vaas in the middle. The pair hung around for 29 balls, bringing the target closer by eight runs, before disaster struck in the form of a mindless misunderstanding.
To add to the drama, Jayasuriya had come in as a runner for an injured Zoysa. With eight needed to win, Vaas, at the non-striker’s end, set off for a run but was sent back by a hesitant Jayasuriya. By the time Vaas made a return dash to his crease, it was too late as the throw from Kallis had found its way to Klusener and on to the stumps.
The last man Muralitharan was out the very next ball, umpire Daryl Harper making an error of judgement while giving a caught-behind off Boje (3/24). South Africa had prevailed in a fluctuating match by seven runs and remained alive in the series by the skin of their teeth. Klusener and Ranatunga shared the man of the match award.
South Africa had bounced back from a disadvantageous position in each of the four innings and eventually fought their way to a nerve-jangling victory. This is their second-narrowest win in terms of runs after their five-run triumph against Australia at Sydney in 1993-94. Also, this is Sri Lanka’s narrowest defeat. The hosts had themselves to blame for the twin collapses of 6/22 and 6/39.
The deciding Test at Colombo’s Sinhalese Sports Club – Ranatunga’s farewell – ended in a draw and so did the series. South Africa’s unbeaten series streak continued until December 2001, when they were whitewashed 3-0 in Australia.