KANDY: Having arrived in Sri Lanka with much optimism, Australia was dealt a major reality check when they were flummoxed by spin and crashed to a 106-run defeat in the first Test.
Resuming day five needing 185 to win at the Pallekele Stadium with seven wickets in hand, the world champions were dismissed for 161, leaving Steve Smith with his first loss in 12 Tests as skipper. It was Australia’s first Test defeat since last year’s Ashes series.
Veteran left-arm spinner Rangana Herath, 38, was the chief tormentor, claiming 5-54 (his 24th five-wicket haul) and nine for the match, while debutant Lakshan Sandikan, of the left-arm wrist variety, finished with 3-49.
But they were made to work hard when Peter Nevill and the injured Steve O’Keefe, batting with a strained hamstring which was to force him home, grimly fought on.
Eschewing any thoughts of scoring, they combined for four runs off 178 balls, including almost 23 straight maidens, in 97 minutes of resistance before Neville sparred at off-spinner Dhananjaya de Silva and was caught behind.
This was a Test which also put umpires Richard Kettleborough and Sundaram Ravi under immense strain as 15 wickets fell lbw – the most for a Test in Sri Lanka and the fifth most in Test history.
The series now heads to the picturesque city of Galle, with the Australians to be flown there by helicopter on Sunday.
It shapes as a time of reflection for the tourists, whose long-time foibles against quality spin bowling again haunted them. They have now only won one of their past 16 Tests on the sub-continent and have much work to do if they are to re-emerge in the three-Test series, resuming Thursday.
That they began this match in fine form, upending Sri Lanka for 117 in their first innings, would have only added to their frustration.
Smith had shaped as the potential match-winner on Saturday when he posted his 17th Test half-century but his dismissal on the cusp of lunch, deceived by a skidding delivery from Herath, was the match-turning moment. Sri Lanka needed three wickets after the break to claim victory. The last came half-an-hour before tea.
The hosts began the day believing the budding partnership between Adam Voges and Smith loomed as their biggest threat. They were able to nullify this not long after play had started 45 minutes late because of the threat of rain.
The manner of Voges’ dismissal, when he jammed a ball back to Herath, surprised himself, and surely most of the Sri Lankans, who had barely appealed the diving catch, thinking it had been a bump ball.
Even the veteran spinner had appealed to umpire Kettleborough in hushed, almost apologetic tones, rather than as a man who believed he had made a crucial incision.
Kettleborough then sought the counsel of his fellow umpire, and opted to review the call. Replays would show the ball had flown off the bottom of Voges’ angled bat and had not touched the ground.
Herath was given one more over before Sri Lankan captain Angelo Matthews then made the odd decision to remove his key weapon – a man who thrives on long spells.
Sandakan loomed as a difficult proposition, and he had a strong leg side field to attack the Australian skipper. Only three men were on the off-side – at slip, mid-off, and a deep point. This was done in order to seek a catch on the leg side from his stock ball, and even to tempt Smith into charging at Sandakan’s wrong-un, in the hope he would mistime an inside edge.
Smith continued to attack with his feet, following through on his pre-match declaration to try and subdue the spinners early in his innings.
Batting coach Stuart Law had called on Mitch Marsh to play his natural game, much as he did in the first innings with a composed 31 before he misread Sandakan’s wrong-un.
He began well, straight driving Herath for four. While his power game can be seen as a weakness, it will generate plenty of runs – regardless of the conditions.
Marsh and Smith appeared at ease against the off-spin of Dilruwan Perera and Dhananjaya de Silva, prompting Mathews to recall Herath after Smith had notched his half-century off 160 balls, with the one boundary.
Herath, the only Test cricketer still in action who made his debut in the 1990s, immediately rediscovered his tight line – as Marsh would find when a quicker delivery skidded in to his front pad. Umpire Ravi rejected the appeal but the television replay showed the ball would have hit halfway up middle stump.
As the pressure rose, four balls later Kettleborough was again proven wrong, this time when he agreed Smith, having found himself stuck on the crease, had tickled an edge behind off Sandakan. The captain immediately called for a review, and despite there being no hot-spot or snickometer in this series, replays were conclusive enough to show there had been a gap between bat and ball.
Herath, though, would provide the match-turning breakthrough in the next over when, again, a flat delivery skidded on and beat Smith’s bat. This time there was no doubt, and Australia’s hopes took another turn for the worst.