What it must have been like to be Dinesh Chandimal scoring a breathtaking double-century when you thought your Test career was done. What it must have been like to be Prabath Jayasuriya to spin your country to one of their greatest wins on debut when you thought you might never have a Test career. What it must have been like for Dimuth Karunaratne and Angelo Mathews to walk around the stadium posing for selfies with the hundreds of fans and ground staff to cap off this most glorious of chapters of their illustrious Test careers. What it must have been like to be a Sri Lankan cricketer at Galle over the last four days as your country awakened to a new beginning.
Less than a week ago, it all seemed doomed. The fuel crisis had worsened. The economy had fallen further into strife. The government in power was refusing to budge. The protests of those demanding change continued to fall on deaf ears. Sri Lanka was suffering with no real hope in sight. The light at the end of the tunnel was beginning to fade very quickly.
It was pretty much the same on the field too. Karunaratne & Co had been handed a humiliating defeat by the Australians. They’d been bundled out within 23 overs in conditions that were supposed to be tailormade for them. The sense of hopelessness only worsened as three of their key players tested positive for Covid and were ruled out. The sense of dread only grew more ominous as Australia won the toss and Steve Smith scored his first Test ton in 18 months.
The turnaround really began not on but off the field. On the periphery of the Galle International Stadium on the second day of the Test (Saturday). As thousands of locals, denied the chance to go to Colombo for the national protests owing to a suspension of public transport, marched as one to the gates of the iconic venue. There they set up a base and began chanting and screaming slogans like every day Sri Lankans have been for the last three months. An hour or so later, they had recaptured Galle fort, a day after they’d been banished from climbing to the top to watch the Test. It’s around the time the Sri Lankan bowlers began their fightback on the field as Jayasuriya ran through the Australian lower order to deny Australia the chance to bat the home team out of the game.
Another hour or so in, the people of Sri Lanka had finally won. The power of the people had eventually seen the overthrow of the government and the leaders that they held responsible for the unprecedented plight the country finds itself in. While scenes of protestors taking over the Presidential palace in Colombo began circulating around the globe, Karunaratne and Kusal Mendis dug in to help the Sri Lankan team reclaim their lost honor. In a rather surreal moment, a couple of the Sri Lankan batters walked towards the nets at the back of the stadium for a hit during the tea break. There they came face to face with the heart of the protests in Galle. They went about their business without obviously acknowledging their compatriots shouting for change less than 100 meters from the stadium. But maybe they would have afforded themselves a smile. One of them of course was among the first Sri Lankan cricketers to have tweeted in support of the protests when it all began.
As the sound of the protests turned into the music of hope outside the stadium towards the end of Saturday (July 9), the tide had begun to shift in the Test match too. And as the people of Sri Lanka made themselves comfortable in the pool and in the living room of the outgoing President in Colombo, the Sri Lankan batters did the same in the middle at Galle with Chandimal taking over from Mendis in grinding the Aussies to the ground.
By Monday (July 11) morning, there was a significant change in the mood around Sri Lanka. The crisis continued unabated but finally, it felt like the people of this proud nation could finally look out their windows with some belief. Maybe it was a change that they could smell in the air. The fort walls were fully occupied by the time Chandimal began marching towards his double century. The grass banks and the Galle Cricket Club to the right-hand side of the ground were heaving too with people and raised glasses of gin and tonic. The Paper and the baila had taken over from the more generic 80s pop and R&B English hits. Sri Lanka was in party mode, and Chandimal was providing them with the perfect soundtrack, smashing some hits off Mitchell Starc, and launching the big fast bowler out of the ground and into the fort. And there was a release of emotion, almost an explosion of delight, not just from Chandimal, but everyone present in Galle as he went 4, 6, and 6 off Starc to get to the milestone.
Here was a man whose story epitomizes the spirit of Sri Lanka, the country’s will to find triumph through every disaster it’s had to contend with in its history. A man whose family had lost everything they owned in the tsunami, not too far from here, some 17 years ago. And someone who’d put his hand up for any role that had been offered to him without always getting his due for it.
And nobody but Jayasuriya in the current team embodies the innate ability of Sri Lankans to keep plugging away, whether it’s while waiting in the endless queues for fuel or letting themselves be heard endlessly without ever losing their cool or their dignity. For years now, the left-arm spinner had bowled hour after hour on the unforgiving pitches of the SSC ground in Colombo and found ways to get batters out. And here in slightly more helpful conditions with the breeze from the Indian Ocean assisting his drift perfectly, Jayasuriya made the Aussies look silly while getting the better of them. No wonder you couldn’t wipe the smile off his face as he sat on the team balcony, responding to the constant stream of phone calls and messages-after having spent a few minutes chatting with his two high-profile victims, Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne.
It gave you a glimpse into what it must have felt to be Jayasuriya late on Monday evening. And also what it must have felt like to be Sri Lankan over the last few days in Galle at a time their nation looks set for a historic restart to their journey on and off the field.