Graeme Cremer soaked up 175 balls and 121 dots to lead another lower-order rally and raise Zimbabwe’s hopes of saving their 100th Test, but Sri Lanka dug deep into their reserves to secure a hard-earned victory with 45 balls to spare.
When the last hour began, Zimbabwe needed to bat out 15 overs with Cremer on 41 and No. 10 Carl Mumba on 3. Both batsmen played close to their bodies with a straight bat, blocking single-mindedly, and leaving Sri Lanka on the tenterhooks. They negotiated four more overs before Cremer jumped out of the crease and attempted an injudicious flick against the turn, off Rangana Herath, and was stumped for 43. He had faced 351 balls across both innings, the second-most by a No. 8 in a Test behind Wasim Akram’s 363, which incidentally came against Zimbabwe in 1996.
Nineteen balls after the key wicket of Cremer, Dilruwan Perera knocked out Chris Mpofu’s off stump to wrap up Sri Lanka’s 225-run victory.
Cremer entered the fray at 100 for 6, seven overs after lunch, after Zimbabwe had lost their last five wickets for 32 runs. He first added 39 for the seventh wicket with Sean Williams in 19.4 overs before marshalling Mumba in a 38-run ninth-wicket stand that lasted 19.1 overs.
Cremer endured a nervy moment when he padded up to a straight delivery from Herath, but umpire Ian Gould turned down the bowler’s appeal, with ball-tracking backing up his decision, indicating the ball would have missed off stump. Cremer shook that off and soldiered on. His first boundary came off his 53rd ball when he drove a Suranga Lakmal half-volley through extra cover.
It was Williams who laid the groundwork for Zimbabwe’s fightback. He showed restraint, taking 21 balls to get off the mark, before unfurling his range with paddle-sweeps and even reverse-sweeps against the spinners.
Williams went onto make 40 off 92 balls, before Herath struck with the fourth ball after tea, getting him to nick to slip. Herath sensed an opening and broke through six overs later when he had Donald Tiripano lbw for a 21-ball duck. It was a dubious decision from Gould, though, with replays detecting an inside edge onto the pad. He should have been out off the previous ball he faced – a Herath arm ball struck his front pad in front of middle and leg – but Gould did not budge.
Sri Lanka secured victory with 45 balls left in final session of the final day © AFP
The cloud cover that had built up during tea moved off and Sri Lanka then strained every sinew. Herath brought out the carrom ball from wide of the crease, and even tried to shake things up with part-time legspinner Kusal Mendis. The second new ball ultimately snuffled out Zimbabwe’s dogged resistance.
In the morning Lakmal swung the first new ball and teased Zimbabwe’s openers in the channel outside off after Sri Lanka had declared overnight, keeping in view the rain threat and setting Zimbabwe a target of 412 in 98 overs. Brian Chari struggled to even put bat on ball in the early exchanges, failing to get fully forward or go fully back against Lakmal’s awayswingers and Herath’s arm balls. To compound his woes, Chari attempted to sweep Herath against the turn, but the top edge did not carry to fine leg or deep square leg.
It was the extra pace of teenage debutant Lahiru Kumara that ended the tentative 31-run opening partnership. In his first over, an inducker at 141kph burst through Chari’s defences and sent the off stump cartwheeling.
Once the swing faded, Lakmal briefly peppered the batsmen with short balls from around the wicket with a leg slip, forward short leg, and square leg placed halfway to the boundary, but it was reverse-swing with the old ball that provided him the breakthroughs. In the space of three balls, he coaxed a couple to veer back into Hamilton Masakadza and Malcolm Waller to trap both lbw.
It came after Dilruwan had struck twice in nine balls to remove Tino Mawoyo for 37 and Sean Ervine for an eight-ball duck. Mawoyo was adjudged lbw by Simon Fry, though the slider from Dilruwan was comfortably missing leg stump with the angle from over the wicket. Ervine, though, was pinned plumb in front by a full delivery that drifted in and then turned away.
Zimbabwe lost four wickets for only six runs and later Herath worked his way past Cremer and the tail to give Sri Lanka their first away Test win after seven matches, on captaincy debut.