Gunaratne, Dickwella star as Sri Lanka seal record chase

Sikandar Raza had done his bit with the bat, but looked far from effective during his bowling stints in Sri Lanka’s second innings. That was until he bowled the jaffer that beat Niroshan Dickwella’s defense in the 69th over of the chase. Regis Chakabva collected the ball around and realising that the batsman had had his backfoot planted on the crease, quickly effected a stumping. The celebrations were equally emphatic. Zimbabwe thought they had their sixth wicket, and had an opening into Sri Lanka’s tail. Except, third umpire Shamsuddin had his doubts about the stumping. He wasn’t sure if Dickwella’s was indeed out, and with so much doubt, decided to give the batsman the benefit of the doubt.

That was the seismic shift that turned the game firmly in Sri Lanka’s favour in the Only Test played at the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo. The Zimbabwe players could hardly believe how it was not out. Heath Streak reacted with equal shock in the dressing room. Dickwella looked guilty, but relieved that he was let off. And then he set about making the most of that lucky break.

In the end, Sri Lanka managed to seal a historic chase, chasing down 388 with four wickets to spare on Tuesday (July 18). Dickwella’s 81 off 118 balls was worth its weight in gold, but Asela Gunaratne’s calm 80 was as, if not more, priceless. The pair’s 121-run stand was the catalyst in the victory, but Sri Lanka had made sure they were always positive about going for the total of 388, with all their batsmen in the line-up, barring Dinesh Chandimal (15), making vital contributions.

Dickwella’s innings was characterised by fearlessness. He brought out the sweeps to counter the spinners, and used his feet beautifully. The intent from the left-hander never dropped, and with some luck aiding him, he ensured Sri Lanka made steady progress. He was very adept at picking the gaps in the field, and when the opportunity was there – there weren’t many – he cashed in.

Zimbabwe continued to create chances. Graeme Cremer beat the bat regularly, while there was a couple of half chances that went to ground. It seemed as if luck had deserted the visitors.

Dickwella and a determined Gunaratne added 121 runs at a good pace to keep Sri Lanka in the running for a record chase. Sri Lanka had never chased down this many in a Test match. They had only twice managed to score more than 388, but neither resulted in wins. The pair ensured that the side were on course for that record.

But there was room for more twists. It was almost expected that there would be twists; after all the entire game had seen fortunes swinging rapidly. Soon after Gunaratne brought up his fifty, Zimbabwe got the wicket they had waited for. Dickwella tried the reverse sweep, but only gloved it to the keeper, setting off another momentum shift.

But Sri Lanka had Dilruwan Perera still to bat. The right-hander had played as a specialist batsman in lower grade and first-class cricket, and showed that he still hadn’t lost that touch. Zimbabwe did not let up on the pressure. They employed an in-out field, and tried to dry up the runs. Peter Moor missed a catch at short leg, while Gunaratne was let off twice by Chakabva. The ‘keeper missed a stumping off Cremer before dropping an edge off Sean Williams.

Luck continued to desert the visitors. There were chances that dropped short, catches dropped, stumpings missed and run-out chances fluffed. Gunaratne enjoyed a charmed stay, especially towards the end as Zimbabwe put the brakes on, but he was determined to stay on until the end.

With Cremer slowly tiring, he bowled 48 off Zimbabwe’s 114.5 overs, Gunaratne was presented with chances to score. Short balls were pulled away to the fence, while the sweep met fuller deliveries. Cremer even took two desperate reviews off his 47th over, but nothing came off it. The victory finally came off a cover drive for four from Perera. Gunaratne remained unbeaten on 80, while Perera chipped in with a vital 29.

Earlier in the day, Zimbabwe put themselves on the brink of a famous win by prising out the wickets of set overnight batsmen Kusal Mendis and Angelo Mathews early in the day. Mendis was out playing the slog off a full Cremer delivery and holed out, while Mathews chipped another full ball straight to the bowler.

At 203 for 5, Zimbabwe sensed victory. But Dickwella and Gunaratne stood in the way. Perhaps with some luck, the game could’ve been a whole different affair, but Sri Lanka won’t complain. They had just chased down the fifth highest total in Test history. It was their biggest Test chase, and one they can look back upon fondly as the one that kickstarted the Chandimal era.

Brief scores: Zimbabwe 356 & 377 (Sikandar Raza 127, Malcolm Waller 68, Rangana Herath 6-133) lost to Sri Lanka 346 & 391/6 (Niroshan Dickwella 81, Asela Gunaratne 81*, Graeme Cremer 4-150) by 4 wickets.

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