Muttiah Muralitharan. Lasith Malinga. Ajantha Mendis. In another country, none of the three might have made it through the system. The high-elbow and seam-bolt-upright brigade would have coached the exceptional out of them, and reduced them to mundane trundlers. Fortunately, Sri Lanka is not such a place. Tolerance of the unorthodox and the unusual has been one of the reasons for their spectacular progress from easy-beats in the 1980s to World Cup glory and beyond.
"We admire players who do something different," said Mahela Jayawardene when I spoke to him after Mendis's 26-wicket debut series in 2008. "People don't want to see the same pattern. Even the younger guys who come in want to do something different. You have the basic stuff but you also want to do something outstanding. "The coaches have played a big role as well. Without changing cricketers, they've allowed them to develop their own styles. A few adjustments would be made to enhance control, and with a guy like Lasith they changed a few things with his action so that he wouldn't get injured but they didn't take the X-factor away from his deliveries."
That X-factor was in full view in Galle yesterday, as Malinga's dramatic intervention at the end of the day shook the ground from underneath India's feet. With half an hour to stumps, they harboured a genuine hope of saving the game, with Sachin Tendulkar batting beautifully and Rahul Dravid at his resolute best. The two had held Sri Lanka and the considerable wiles of Muttiah Muralitharan at bay throughout the afternoon with a 119-run partnership that spanned 42 overs.
Along the way, Dravid had passed Allan Border as the batsman who had faced the most deliveries in Test cricket. Then, Kumar Sangakkara threw the ball to Malinga. The 27,067th ball of Dravid's storied career reverse-swung and was shaping down leg when he opted for the flick. He could not keep it down, and Sangakkara celebrated the decision to station himself at leg gully. In Malinga's next over, the hammer blow, a yorker on leg stump that held its line. As Tendulkar walked off, the change in mood was palpable. Even the schoolboys with their Murali placards on the boundary's edge knew that the game was as good as won.
Even before Murali then edged closer to 800 wickets with the dismissal of Yuvraj Singh, VVS Laxman had been making eyes at the umpires about the light. It was not an excuse. Even in broad daylight, Malinga can be devlishly hard to pick. The ball is released in front of the umpire's chest, and propelled at speeds in excess of 140km/hr. Factor in-swing as well, and it is not hard to understand why Sri Lanka's Test team have missed his effervescent bowling since a knee injury sidelined him in December 2007.
With Malinga back, the attack is better balanced and Sangakkara must surely wish that Murali was staying on for the full series. His display was another for the highlights reels, showcasing all the qualities that have made him Sri Lankan cricket's go-to guy for more than a decade. Yuvraj and MS Dhoni were batting fluently and putting together the sort of partnership that might have seen the follow-on averted when he produced that prodigious off-break. Dhoni departed flummoxed, and Yuvraj nicked one to slip soon after as 252 for five quickly became 276 all out. In the second innings, his final duel with Tendulkar was one to savour. Having been outwitted in the first dig, Tendulkar was in no mood to relent. With Dravid also smothering the spin, Sangakkara had to turn to Malinga. Having grown up just 20 minutes away in Rathgama, the peroxide-blonde is a hero in Galle, and in the space of 10 minutes, he gave the locals two more reasons to fete him. firstname.lastname@example.org
Stumps on the third day of the first Test between Sri Lanka and India at Galle International Stadium. Sri Lanka 1st Innings (overnight 256-2) Tharanga Paranavitana c Dhoni b Sharma 111 Tillakaratne Dilshan c Dhoni b Mithun 25 Kumar Sangakkara c Tendulkar b Sehwag 103 Mahela Jayawardene lbw b Sharma 48 Thilan Samaraweera lbw b Mithun 0 Angelo Mathews c Laxman b Sharma 41 Prasanna Jayawardene lbw b Mithun 27 Rangana Herath not out 80 Lasith Malinga c Harbhajan b Mithun 64 Muttiah Muralitharan not out 5 Extras: (1b, 10lb, 5nb) 16 TOTAL: (for 8 wickets declared) 520 Overs: 124. Fall of wickets: 1-55, 2-236, 3-259, 4-260, 5-322, 6-344, 7-393, 8-508. Did not bat: Chanaka Welegedara. Bowling: Ishant Sharma 28-5-145-3 (5nb), Abhimanyu Mithun 28-3-105-4 , Harbhajan Singh 30-4-98-0, Pragyan Ojha 28-1-115-0, Virender Sehwag 10-0-46-1. India 1st Innings Gautam Gambhir lbw b Malinga 2 Virender Sehwag not out 85 Rahul Dravid run out 18 Sachin Tendulkar lbw b Muralitharan 8 V.V.S. Laxman not out 18 Extras: (1lb, 7nb, 1w) 9 TOTAL: (for 3 wickets) 140 Overs: 29.4 Fall of wickets: 1-2, 2-68, 3-101. Still to bat: Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh, Pragyan Ojha, Ishant Sharma, Abhimanyu Mithun Bowling: Lasith Malinga 9-0-40-1 (4nb), Chanaka Welegedara 4-0-34-0 (3nb), Rangana Herath 6.4-1-25-0, Anjelo Mathews 3-0-9-0 (1w), Muttiah Muralitharan 7-1-31-1. Toss: Sri Lanka Umpires: Daryl Harper, Australia and Rod Tucker, Australia TV umpire: Tyron Wijewardena, Sri Lanka Match referee: Andy Pycroft, Zimbabwe