If cricket is art and art imitates life, then evoking the magic of crisis is the medium of Sri Lanka.
The approach to this test was an unfettered mess. The first to test positive for Covid in the Sri Lanka squad was Angelo Mathews, who is apparently so cautious he wakes up and puts on a mask before encountering his own reflection in the mirror.
Mathews was okay with playing the second Test after ending his isolation well before it started. But the infection spread. Dhananjaya de Silva, who was the most recent Sri Lankan striker to play a game-winning run in Galle, was ruled out of this game. Left arm spinner Praveen Jayawickrama also fell with him when he was pretty much a sure thing to play. Asitha Fernando, Sri Lanka’s top bowler on the recent Bangladesh tour, was also evacuated. Just like Jeffrey Vandersay.
But that was on the cricket pitch.
A crisis that is just waiting for a little magic to get out of it? Let’s go there. Reach. Armpit deep in the hat. See what we find. That’s what it’s about. This is where Sri Lanka lives right now. Or maybe always.
On the ground, it’s madness. As people scramble to the floor and reclaim public space, the team burst into Australia’s lower middle order and overwhelmed the tail, Jayasuriya running through the batters.
Not only was Jayasuriya not in the squad when the streak started, he wasn’t called up until days before the match, after Jayawickrama and Vandersay were both kicked out, and Lasith Embuldeniya was released because he was terribly out of form.
Two spinners out due to illness, another because he’s not doing very well at the moment – it’s a crisis, isn’t it? Which, if we accept this account, also means magic. Jayasuriya, getting a spectacular steal and dive, making most of the deliveries, sending others straight, getting six wickets on his debut to put Australia out for a competitive but not commanding 364. Minor magic, perhaps. But shit. Sri Lanka lost the last game in two days, basically. We will take it.
Then the batting begins. As protest chants echo through the stadium, Karunaratne and Kusal Mendis put in 152 for the second wicket. Are they stimulated by the songs? Are they distracted? Do they wish their cricket wasn’t so close to politics in an article a few days later? That people supposed to write about cricket would just write about cricket?
Who knows. Things happened. The last few days have been crazy. We are always trying to give it meaning.
But lo and behold, after lunch on the fourth day, it was Chandimal who was still there, Kamindu’s sleeves now a distant memory. There are four sixes in the company of No. 11, all spectacular. One is an amazing cut from Pat Cummins, way above the back stitch. The others are towering strikes against Mitchell Starc, the most spectacular being one that sailed over the aiming screen, past the stadium fence and onto the road beyond the stadium.
At one point, a 100 lead seemed fanciful. Here is Chandimal, playing one of the best rounds of his life, pushing it towards 200.
Australia’s denouement in their second run was almost too smooth to believe. Jayasuriya, now apparently Sri Lanka’s main spinner, having been magically taken out of the national system for Covid reasons and asked to win a match on day four in Galle, is basically a thoughtless devotee rushing into a religious routine, offering batters at this altar of spin bowling.
He took 6 for 59, but through most of it all the action feels unintentional. Usman Khawaja was off the bat-pad, Steven Smith reviews resplendent lbw with aplomb, Marnus Labuschagne considered following in his hero’s footsteps but walked away, then Jayasuriya gobbled up the middle order and tail .
Elsewhere, Maheesh Theekshana takes two wickets, also on his debut. And Ramesh Mendis grabs two of his own. This is not an experienced spinning attack. Between them, these three spinners have 10 tests on their ledger.
But it is a country in which a deeply depressing economic crisis has sparked the kind of grassroots revolution that has seen people take over the state-funded residences of senior officials. A place where rookies pitch their camp to victory and entire batting lineups suddenly fire simultaneously.
Will this usher Sri Lankan cricket into a new era? Who knows? There is a crisis. But here is your medicine. Get some magic in you.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s correspondent in Sri Lanka. @afidelf