COLOMBO. — The intriguing Test battle between Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe is tantalisingly poised and, for the plucky tourists, history is in the making here should they find a way to wipe out the remaining seven today and ensure the hosts fail to score 218 runs in the process.
Zimbabwe, who have shown remarkable resurgence and resilience on this tour, have history in their favour because they have never lost a Test match while defending 200 or more in the fourth innings since the turn of the millennium.
Sri Lanka haven’t won chasing 175 or more in the last 10 years. The hosts have only twice managed to score more than 388 in the fourth innings in their history, against Australia (410) and Pakistan (391), but neither resulted in wins.
If they were to chase this down, it would be Sri Lanka’s biggest successful Test chase, as well as the biggest in the country. The first setback for Sri Lanka came in the 20th over, when Graeme Cremer had Upul Tharanga out caught at bat-pad.
Sean Williams then got a ball to spin viciously from outside off to take the stumps, and when Chandimal edged Cremer to slip, Sri Lanka looked in danger of losing their way.
Angelo Mathews (17) and Mendis (60) denied the visitors any late wickets as the home side went into stumps on the penultimate day at 170/3, needing 218 more to win.
And, on the fifth and final day today, Zimbabwe are on the cusp of their first ever Test win over Sri Lanka while the hosts, already three wickets down overnight, are fighting hard and doing everything in their power to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Simple maths — Zimbabwe need seven wickets. Sri Lanka need 218 runs and, going into the final day today, to borrow Ravi Shastri’s oft-used statement, all three results are possible.
Zimbabwe have already created history on this tour of Sri Lanka, having recorded their maiden ODI series victory over the hosts and the Chevrons could create more history after a fighting effort saw them take control of the one-off Test at R. Premadasa Stadium.
On a track that has now begun to produce unplayable balls, Zimbabwe’s key to victory on day five will be discipline according to Sikandar Raza, whose maiden Test century played a pivotal role in transforming the match situation.
Though the overnight pair — Kusal Mendis and Angelo Mathews — have each produced great rearguard innings before, there isn’t much experience to follow.
Niroshan Dickwella and Asela Gunaratne have played only 12 Tests between them; Gunaratne is carrying a hamstring injury in any case.
“I think patience and discipline will play a huge role,” Raza said. “If we can stay disciplined and patient, I think there is enough for Sean Williams, Graeme Cremer and the other spinners as well — for balls to misbehave.
‘’You could get a jaffa that you can’t do much about. I think on a track like this, once you get the senior players out, with the way their batting is at the moment, it could open a door for us to sneak through.”
As was seen with the dismissal of Dimuth Karunaratne, the pitch can also occasionally produce big-turning deliveries out of the rough.
Karunaratne had left a Williams delivery that pitched wide but leapt back at him to clip off stump. Williams persisted with a legside line, trying to find the same patch of rough, for many of the remainder of his overs in the day.
“We discussed with Sean, and because there was a lot of turn with that dismissal,” Raza said. “The moment they try and get greedy to score, the slip could come into play, the off stump could be exposed, and we could sneak in a wicket there.
‘’We wanted to hold one end so that Cremer can attack from the other. While we are holding it, we’re still creating a few chances.” Of his knock, Raza partly credited the inspiration he derived from batting coach Lance Klusener. Zimbabwe had been 23 for 4 at lunch on day three, then 59 for 5 not long after.
But by the time Raza departed, they had a lead greater than 300 and were running the match. Along the way, he had forged partnerships worth 86 with PJ Moor, and 144 with Malcolm Waller.
“Yes, the heads were down for a little while during that lunch break when we were 23 for 4. Klusener had a word with us and said that it’s up to us — the guys who were still to bat — whether we go down without a fight, or we show some heart.”
Zimbabwe have used the sweep shot to excellent effect throughout the tour, and Raza — in particular — combatted the spinners with a range of cross batted strokes.
Almost all the batsmen have contributed at some point in the tour, and Klusener has played a role in the run-making, Raza said. “The batting plans come from us. Then we discuss and share our plans with Klusener and then he has his input. Of course he has a world of experience.
If I have a plan which I think is too risky, Klusener will always advise me and say you could have a better plan — do XYZ. It’s quite a nice relationship all the batters have got with our batting coach.
“If you look at the Sri Lanka tour, everyone has scored runs. In the ODI series we started with Solomon Mire, then Hamilton Masakadza. Then we had Tarisai Musakanda, who is a young guy who got into a team, batted in a difficult place, and did exceptionally. Craig Ervine, has been performing. Sean Williams had been performing.
‘’All the guys heading into the Test had runs behind them. Everyone has a different plan. Everyone has their own plan. All our plans worked around being positive. Some were around being aggressive. My plan was certainly like that.”
Zimbabwe had not had the happiest year before coming to Sri Lanka, having lost a home ODI series to Afghanistan, and one ODI to Scotland as well. But in keeping the same players around since the start of the year has begun to pay dividends, Raza said.
“I think since Heath Streak has become head coach and Tatenda Taibu has been chief selector, we have kept the same group of players. So, certainly it has been about six months that we’ve been together — this core of players.
“We haven’t had a lot of changes in our touring 15 or playing XI either. Every time someone has got a chance in the playing XI, they’ve stepped up as well. We’ve had a very consistent squad, and I think that goes hand-in-hand with consistent performances as well.”
Brief scores: Zimbabwe 356 & 377 (Sikandar Raza 127, Malcolm Waller 68, Rangana Herath 6-133) vs Sri Lanka 346 & 170/3 (Kusal Mendis 60*, Graeme Cremer 2-67) Sri Lanka need another 218 runs to win — Sports Reporter/Cricbuzz/Cricinfo