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Herath bowls Sri Lanka to historic victory

Tonight, Sri Lanka are gonna party like it's 1999.

Specifically, like it's September 11, 1999, the only other date on which they beat Australia in a Test.

That victory came in Kandy with an XI full of Sri Lankan greats - Aravinda de Silva, Arjuna Ranatunga, Sanath Jayasuriya, Mahela Jayawardene, Muttiah Muralitharan, Chaminda Vaas. This win, up the road in Pallekele, is all the more remarkable for the dearth of such legends. Then again, it could be the making of some new ones.

Kumar Sangakkara never played in a win over Australia, and the retirements of Sangakkara and Jayawardene seemed to mark the end of an era for Sri Lanka. And yet, from the depths of seventh on the Test rankings they have found a way to overcome the No.1 team in the world. Excitingly, new men played major roles. Kusal Mendis, in his seventh Test, turned the game with his jaw-dropping 176. Debutant Lakshan Sandakan claimed seven wickets with his left-arm wrist-spin.

But there was one link to the previous win: Rangana Herath was there in Kandy in 1999, a 21-year-old sitting in the rooms, waiting for a Test debut that would come in the next match in Galle. Seventeen years later, a 300-wicket bowler whose hair is flecked with grey, Herath played a key role in securing this win. His nine wickets in the match including 5 for 54 in the second innings and, fittingly, he claimed the wicket that sealed the game.

Steve O'Keefe, who had stacked up more blocks than Legoland, leaned forward and tried to flick Herath through leg, only to be bowled for 4 from 98 deliveries. The Sri Lankans were jubilant. They had beaten not only Australia but the weather; the looming threat of bad light had hovered overhead as the afternoon wore on, as O'Keefe and Peter Nevill compiled a partnership of incredible fight.

Australia's penultimate pair batted together for 178 balls for just four runs, a boundary scored by O'Keefe, whose hamstring injury prevented him from running. There were so many dots the scorecard could have been diagnosed with chicken pox, but as they accumulated it was the Sri Lankans who began to feel sick. Would this opportunity slip away? In the end, it was Dhananjaya de Silva who broke the stand, when Nevill flashed outside off and was caught behind for 9 off 115 balls.

Until then, everything had conspired against Sri Lanka. In the 79th over, O'Keefe survived a huge shout for caught at bat-pad off de Silva; Richard Kettleborough turned the appeal down, but replays showed a thick inside edge. Sri Lanka, though, were out of reviews. Two overs later, the reviews were replenished, and soon O'Keefe was given out lbw by Kettleborough. His own review, though, this time showed an inside edge, and he was reprieved.

In the end, it didn't matter. Herath led Sri Lanka to victory, his threat ever-present, his mastery of flight, his persistent accuracy and subtle variations forcing intense concentration from Australia. The only occasions on which Australia looked vaguely comfortable in their chase of 268 were the times when Herath was being rested from the attack. And captain Angelo Mathews ensured that such times did not last very long.

The eventual margin of 106 runs is all the more extraordinary when you consider the way this match began. Sri Lanka were skittled for 117 in the first innings and early in their second were 6 for 2, in real danger of a humiliating innings defeat. They still needed 80 runs just to make Australia bat again. But Mendis walked to the crease and from then on, it was a different game. His hundred, only his second in first-class cricket, will go down as one of Sri Lanka's greatest.

And just as Mathews will join Jayasuriya as the only Sri Lanka captains to beat Australia in a Test, so Steven Smith will now sit alongside Steve Waugh as the only Australians to lead their side to defeat against Sri Lanka. Notably, this was also Australia's first Test loss under Smith's captaincy, and their first for nearly a year, since England triumphed at Trent Bridge last August.

Smith worked his backside off to prevent it, his 55 in the second innings the only example of an Australian passing fifty in this Test. It was a watchful innings that featured only one boundary, but he had precious little help. Sri Lanka's spinners were relentless in applying pressure. In the end, that was enough. Sri Lanka had won a Test blighted by rain and bad light, a constant irritant exacerbated by Sri Lanka Cricket's refusal to use the floodlights.

The fifth morning began late due to rain and it started with Sri Lanka needing seven wickets and Australia requiring 185 runs. There was plenty of turn on offer for Sri Lanka's spinners but that should be the case on the fifth day of a Test; this was far from a bad pitch, and the conditions could not be blamed for the low scores.

It took only until the eighth over of the day for Sri Lanka to strike, when Adam Voges advanced to Herath and chipped back to the bowler on 12. Despite a muted reaction from the Sri Lankans, the third umpire was consulted and discovered that it had not in fact been a bump ball, as appeared to be the case live, and Voges was caught and bowled.

Smith and Mitchell Marsh put on 43 for the fifth wicket, a partnership that might have given Australia some hope of gaining sight of the target, but Herath was again the man who broke the stand when he straightened one just enough to trap Marsh lbw for 25. Next over, Smith was given out caught behind off a Sandakan wrong'un but confidently asked for a review, which found clear daylight between bat and ball.

Another over later Smith was again given out, and this time his review was forlorn. He was almost off the ground in resignation when the verdict came through. Again, Herath from around the wicket had straightened one just enough to trap the batsman dead in front. The loss of Mitchell Starc for a duck in the next over - he chipped a return catch to Sandakan - left Australia hoping for afternoon rain or bad light to allow them to escape with a draw.

The loss of Nathan Lyon soon after lunch, lbw to a big-turning wrist-spinner from Sandakan, seemed to put Sri Lanka on the brink. But then came the Nevill-O'Keefe blockathon. Australia's hopes were raised, only to be dashed again. Sri Lanka had their second win over Australia, and their first against any team in Pallekele. They can now dream of wrapping up the series in the second Test in Galle, where spin typically plays an even greater role.

But that is for next week. For tonight, they celebrate a victory of great significance.
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