Sri Lanka rediscover the taste of freedom

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Russel Arnold: Sri Lanka's organised approach made South Africa's attack look ordinary (6:29)

Sri Lanka needed new heroes and they found them in South Africa, says former Sri Lanka batsman Russel Arnold (6:29)

"If the players are good enough to play here and compete, that's what we're looking to do."

- Sri Lanka coach Chandika Hathurusingha, two days out from the series.
Not "they are good enough"; if. Not "win" the series, or a Test; compete.

"We are very green," Hathurusingha says.

The next day, new leader Dimuth Karunaratne speaks about "finding a way" to score runs against South Africa, in the pre-match press conference. But in private, he laments the fear he senses among his teammates.

Karunaratne himself is officially only a temporary appointment. The words "stand-in captain" writ in black and white next to his name on the squad sheet. But at least he is somewhat sure of his place in the XI. Others are not so certain. Players thought undroppable have been dumped. Coaches are being replaced. The sports minister is on record telling national players to sharpen up, lest he makes moves to replace them with members of the Under-19 side. Through injury, they are missing their best batsman, Angelo Mathews, and three of their four best quicks. They have not won since October. They are badly bruised, literally and metaphorically. In Australia, they had been monstered.

On top of this their administrators are embroiled in name-calling and shameless jockeying ahead of the Sri Lanka Cricket election, and the ICC is conducting a mass-scale investigation into fixing in the country - a crisis in which a former coach and selector have already been caught up.

"The players are all in their shells," the stand-in captain says, the day before he leads his first Test. "They're afraid of doing anything. It's hard to get them to come out, even for a meal. They are just in their rooms. It's fear. They sit in their rooms, and they ruminate."

***

If there is something that has set Sri Lanka apart as a cricketing force; one quality they have harnessed better than any other nation, it is freedom.

There is talent in Sri Lanka, sure, but there is talent in all corners of the globe - teenagers bowling 140kph bouncers in New Zealand, kids setting local leagues alight in backwoods Australia, young men and women clearing pavilion roofs with their sixes in the Caribbean, and reverse-swing artists who send stumps cartwheeling on the Pakistani tape-ball circuit.

But in Sri Lanka, in cricket (if nowhere else), you were free. Free to bowl with a bent arm until you are the greatest wicket-taker there ever may be. Free to maraud at the top of an ODI innings, until you have reshaped batting by the glint of your flashing blade. Free to fire yorkers in roundarm, free to scoop the ball over the wicketkeeper's head, free to bowl deliveries that have never been bowled, attempt strokes that have never been attempted, and if all of that is not for you, free to quell the finest bowlers from around the planet with a granite defence and a glorious bent-kneed cover drive.

But all of that is history, and this here was a Sri Lanka side in the constricting grip of fear. A captain ponders how he might lift his team out of this funk. A coach is unsure whether his players can possibly come together for a common cause. Will they play only for themselves?

So, Karunaratne, feeling more than a little out of his depth, talks to his deputy Niroshan Dickwella, and hatches a plan. Let's not overthink this one, he says. Let's go out. Let's enjoy life. More importantly, let's ensure that no shot is off limits. No bowling plan is too rigid. That no one is shouted down for taking a risk. The coaches buy into the idea.

And then, as if on a dime, the whole thing turns.

***

In retrospect, it all seems so obvious. South Africa, conscientious but stiff - stating repeatedly that their batsmen struggled against Sri Lanka's rookie bowlers because they had not done sufficient video analysis - becoming more and more tentative through the series, until eventually they collapse to a humbling 128. Sri Lanka, with nothing to lose but their considerable mental baggage, unburdening themselves bit by bit with every passage of play, until they sealed the series in a crescendo of daring - a breakneck stand, worth 163, between Kusal Mendis and Oshada Fernando.

It may seem reductive to put it all down to one ingredient. But how else can you explain it? In going from their lowest ebb to one of the greatest series victories in history inside two weeks, Sri Lanka had time only to introduce this one, vital thing.

Because there was freedom, a No. 11 playing his fourth Test for Sri Lanka told a batsman he would happily wear 145kph bouncers on the body if he had to, as he clung white-knuckled to his wicket - a man holding on by his fingertips, over the edge of a crumbling cliff. Because there was freedom, his partner slapped great bowlers past point, thumped them high on to the grass banks, and produced an innings of breathtaking audacity - the likes of which we may not see for a lifetime.

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Because there was freedom, a 22-year-old left-arm spinner, playing his first match, faced down brutal fast bowling for 63 deliveries in Kingsmead, and took a second-innings five-wicket haul to keep the opposition within Sri Lanka's sights. In the second match, after undergoing surgery for a badly dislocated thumb on the first day, he was seen practicing his shots in the dressing room, left arm in a sling, just in case his team needed him in the chase.

Because there was freedom, this hopeless crowd of easybeats, copping everything from blows to the ribcage to searing abuse on social media, found themselves, almost by accident, playing the kind of daring, electrifying cricket that made spectators sit up in the stands, that made pundits shut their laptops in press boxes, that set Twitter on fire, and quickened the beat of millions of hearts all over the world. At home, policemen, and banana-vendors, and roadside cobblers were drawn in droves to shop TVs for the finish.

No thought was given to the career batting averages, which were all under 40 in this team. No mention was made that the best bowler in the attack that set it all up has a strike rate of 75.

To seal the win, two batsmen, 24 and 26, played out a full session of unbridled adventure. Kusal Mendis, batting at his most sublime, cracking three fours off Dale Steyn's first over, one through extra-cover, then down the ground, now scorching past point. Oshada Fernando, freshly graduated from one of the most pathetic domestic systems around, cracking a short ball from Kagiso Rabada imperiously to midwicket, the pair tearing toward the target at 4.6 runs an over.

The winning moment was no-fuss - the two batsmen punching gloves, a dressing room full of grins, the as-yet-uncapped Angelo Perera walking out to the pitch, plucking out a stump, handing it to captain Karunaratne on his way back off the field. History had been made, but there were no wild raptures here. Just restrained joy, un-thumped chests, and a satisfied calm. They had achieved what 21 previous Asian teams had never accomplished in South Africa. And yet, they made it appear that all was merely as it should be.

For those of us watching on, what was witnessed was beyond monumental, beyond astonishing. It is still - hours later - difficult to believe. You could put it down to luck, or to a rebirth, or to an underperforming opposition, but even taken altogether, none of that adds up.

Karunaratne, perhaps, knew what we didn't eleven days ago. When there is freedom for Sri Lanka, bowlers fight, batsmen dream, galaxies align.