Sri Lanka pose with the series trophy

Sri Lanka won the Test series 2-0, with an innings win and a one-wicket win

Sanka Vidanagama / © AFP/Getty Images

I Was There

When Mahela Jayawardene masterminded a thriller at the Sara

Jayawardene, Sangakkara, Hall, Arthur and others look back at one of the all-time great Tests: Sri Lanka's one-wicket win in Colombo in 2006

Interviews by Andrew Fidel Fernando and Firdose Moonda  |  

South Africa's 2006 Test series in Sri Lanka began badly, with Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara's world-record 624-run partnership crushing the visitors at the SSC. Within that South Africa side, however, were players who would go on to become the core of a famously strong touring team. They rebounded after that innings defeat and went on to challenge Sri Lanka at the P Sara in the second Test, playing out one of the most gripping Tests ever seen on the island.

Mickey Arthur, South Africa coach: We went into the series without Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, who were both injured, so that meant we were a little light up front without our best batsman and our captain - who was probably our next best batsman. The other guys really needed to step up. And in that first Test we were knocked over early on a damp wicket and then we conceded 756. But we batted decently in the second innings. From that point, I thought we actually performed well. It started with Ashwell Prince. He was captaining and he batted really well. He is such a fighter; so gritty.

Kumar Sangakkara, Sri Lanka batsman: We had basically pounded South Africa in that first Test. But they had a knack of coming back and dealing with situations - playing grafting innings and really trying to bring a side down.

Andrew Hall, picked as a replacement for Kallis, and Herschelle Gibbs were both out for ducks after South Africa won the toss and chose to bat.

Andrew Hall, South Africa allrounder-opener: I chatted to a lot of the guys about the kind of bowling I would be facing, and one of the tips I got was about [Lasith] Malinga. I was told to focus on the umpire's tie, because that's where the ball is released from. With other bowlers, you look at their hand or their wrist and you can follow the ball from there, but for Malinga, you look at the umpire's tie and expect the ball to come from there.

It's AB, baby: in his first Test series in the subcontinent, de Villiers made half-centuries in both matches

It's AB, baby: in his first Test series in the subcontinent, de Villiers made half-centuries in both matches © Getty Images

Though South Africa slipped to 70 for 4 after winning the toss, they would recover with strong middle-order performances. Prince (86 off 144) and AB de Villiers (95 off 141), put on 161 for the fifth wicket.

Farveez Maharoof, Sri Lanka fast bowler: I was trying to bowl to Prince with seven fielders on the off side, because I had the containment job, with Chaminda Vaas, Muttiah Muralitharan and Lasith Malinga all hunting for wickets. Early on in my spell, AB wasn't taking many risks, but as my spell was coming to an end, I clearly remember him walking down the wicket and moving towards the off side, trying to work me to leg. He was not letting any bowler settle in. He was always trying to dominate. With Murali, he was sweeping. He took risks and it paid off.

Sangakkara: Prince had been very, very good for a long time, and de Villiers, though at the start of his career, was showing a bit of the quality you later came to take for granted from him.

We needed to get into the mindset where we were starting this game from scratch. That was probably one thing we didn't do. In that first innings, which is so important, we were slightly complacent in letting South Africa get away from us. Prince and de Villiers got their one big partnership right.

South Africa were further propelled by a half-century from Shaun Pollock, who raised the total to a commanding 361. Sri Lanka went in to bat at the start of the second day and collapsed to 86 for 5, with only Sanath Jayasuriya breaching 15 from among the top five.

Sanath Jayasuriya, Sri Lanka opener: Shaun Pollock attacked Murali. That was rare, especially in Sri Lanka. We were quite good at keeping the runs tight, but Pollock broke free and changed the momentum of that game.

"I'll take a dozen, please": Muttiah Muralitharan took 5 for 128 and 7 for 97 in this match - his 18th ten-wicket haul in Tests Sanka Vidanagama / © AFP/Getty Images

Sangakkara: South Africa getting past that 300 mark was a body blow. When we play in Sri Lanka, we always try to keep that first innings as low as possible. If we bat first, we try to get to 400. But if the opposition bats, we try to keep them to maybe under 250. Them getting beyond 300 psychologically put a little bit of responsibility on the top order. And we failed.

Maharoof: Dale Steyn took five wickets in that innings. He was close to 150 (kph) those days. If I had survived him, I could have gone for a hundred, but I inside-edged him and got out. Steyn was trying to bounce me out, coming around the wicket and trying all sorts of things. He bowled one of the quickest spells I have faced in my life. He was trying to hit my pads, my ribs and my head. Andrew Hall bowled really well too.

Arthur: Dale bowled some unbelievable spells. There wasn't a lot of reverse but he ran in hard. He used his air speed so well. And it was so hot. I remember [Mark] Boucher coming off at lunch on one of the days and basically having a drip put straight in him. There was a lot of talk about Polly being past it, but he was incredible. The wickets were so flat and he didn't have extreme pace or reverse, but he still managed to create an impact.

Sangakkara: Steyn and Makhaya Ntini combined beautifully in that first innings. Makhaya bowls really well to left-handers and he developed that scrambled-seam awayseamer to the right-hander. So he could change things from his hooping inswinger and also get the right-hander's outside edge. And Steyn was young, fresh and using reverse swing really well. The hard yards in the first Test didn't seem to bother him. When he started bowling reverse, it was not a case of bowling yorkers every ball. He had that skiddy length, which was ideal for bowling reverse swing.

But then we got that lower-order rally, with Chamara Kapugedera [63], Prasanna Jayawardene [42], Farveez [56] and Chaminda Vaas [64] all getting runs. That put us in striking distance of South Africa's total.

Gibbsy's yer uncle: the South Africa opener made up for his first-innings duck by scoring 92 in the second

Gibbsy's yer uncle: the South Africa opener made up for his first-innings duck by scoring 92 in the second © Getty Images

Sri Lanka eventually finished only 40 runs behind South Africa. In their second innings, South Africa began well, with Gibbs making 92. They got to 161 for 3 before Murali began to impose himself, taking 7 for 97 to go with his 5 for 128 in the first innings.

Jayasuriya: The way Murali worked during that time was amazing. He'd do his visualisations and from the time he'd be asked to bowl, he'd know exactly where he was going to bowl, where the batsman was strong and where he was weak. He was like a computer. Any batsman in the world - he'd know their strengths and what he needed to do.

Maharoof: In the second innings, Boucher played a really good cameo [65 off 102 balls]. At times, AB and Boucher got the better of Murali in this game, but he still got their wickets in that second innings. The Boucher dismissal was incredible because he played a full-blooded sweep off Murali that would have probably gone for a boundary, but Tillakaratne Dilshan was at short leg and the ball got stuck in his underarm.

Jayasuriya: I think Boucher swept Murali well. He was also batting on off stump against Murali, trying a few different things. That worked for a while.

Thanks to Gibbs and Boucher, and smaller contributions from Hall and de Villiers, South Africa set Sri Lanka a target of 352 before lunch on day four. No greater score had ever been chased on the island. The hosts were keen to ensure South Africa did not square the series, because of a tense rivalry between the sides dating back to the acrimonious 2002-03 series in South Africa, which Sri Lanka lost 2-0. The matches then had been marked by ruthless sledging from both sides, although Sri Lanka felt it had been instigated by the home team.

Jayasuriya: We were adamant that we would perform against South Africa when we got the opportunity at home. We wanted to dominate them and trample them without letting up. We remembered what had happened to us when we played in their country.

When cornered, attack: Sanath Jayasuriya's nearly run-a-ball 73 set up the highest successful chase in Sri Lanka at the time

When cornered, attack: Sanath Jayasuriya's nearly run-a-ball 73 set up the highest successful chase in Sri Lanka at the time © Getty Images

Sangakkara: It was a matter of pride, so we were hoping like hell that we wouldn't lose. It was always a talking point whenever they toured or whenever we toured them. Even though relationships improved tremendously after 2004, it was still a reference point for us. "Remember that game?" someone would say. That was enough motivation.

Maharoof: In between innings, the talk was all about chasing the runs rather than playing out a draw. Coach Tom Moody and captain Mahela were very clear about that. We knew the wicket was good enough for that.

They had a couple of bowlers we needed to be careful of, especially [left-arm spinner] Nicky Boje, because of the rough that had been created, and Steyn, because he was quick. With Ntini, I think we just felt we needed to get past his new-ball spells. Steyn and Hall were good at reverse swing, so we were aware of that as well.

Mahela Jayawardene, Sri Lanka captain: I don't think we had a great feeling about chasing that type of score, but we knew we would try to win. We were up against the wall and the wicket was going into its fourth innings. At the Sara, it's always going to be tough.

Sri Lanka lost opener Upul Tharanga cheaply, but at the other end, Jayasuriya went into berserker mode, brutally laying into South Africa's new-ball bowlers.

Jayasuriya: With a good attack like that, you have to counterattack. I always believe that. If we get into defensive mode, we have already lost. Australia, South Africa and England can flag a bit when you play like that. I just thought: if I'm seeing the ball well then I'm definitely going to attack, and I'm going to attack Steyn.

Coach Mickey Arthur on Nicky Boje:

Coach Mickey Arthur on Nicky Boje: "At the time, it was really tough to be a spinner in South Africa. He was more than serviceable. He was wholehearted and he gave everything" Sanka Vidanagama / © AFP/Getty Images

Once I started, their line and length started to change. I remember hitting Pollock into the Air Force huts on the edge of the stadium with one six, and he came back and started bowling offcutters. Pollock was a world-class player and one of the best in the world, and there was a lot of talk before the Test that him coming into the side [he had been injured for the previous game] would make things harder for us. In the end, we got rid of his pace and made him an offcutter bowler. I was just in an attacking mode the whole time. At no point did I approach it like a fourth innings. Mahela did that later as well.

Jayawardene: That's what you need to let Sanath do. We don't even ask him questions when he's in that kind of mood. We just let him bat the way he does. By the time he got out, we had scored one-third of the total we needed. That gave us a lot of momentum. You give yourself half a chance when you have a good start.

Sangakkara: I remember speaking with Sanath out in the middle and both of us being very adamant that we're going to take advantage of every scoring opportunity. We thought that if we could get runs on the board without too many breakthroughs, we could push through. Our target was to get to 130-ish before we lost the [second] wicket, but, unfortunately, when the total was in the 90s, I drove to cover.

Jayasuriya was out shortly after, leaving Sri Lanka 121 for 3, then 164 for 4. Jayawardene then produced arguably the finest Test innings of his career.

Jayawardene: I just went the normal way I play. My attitude was to score runs. I wasn't there to survive. I knew if I played that survival game, it wasn't going to work. Anything loose I was hitting, and I took a few chances against their bowlers and put them under pressure. I just thought the worst thing that can happen is us losing this Test, and that would still leave us 1-1 in the series. All the guys managed to stick around and we got some partnerships going. As long as I was there and kept scoring runs, I wasn't too worried about what was happening at the other end.

Mahela Jayawardene:

Mahela Jayawardene: "I just had to play those little battles, and every time, I managed to score runs" © AFP

Sangakkara: It's just the tempo he kept up and the shots he employed that was special. Not worrying whether the ball was going to rag off the rough - just looking for opportunities to score. Mahela always had that touch. That was really crucial to him converting a start into a hundred. Then, of course, he had to trust the batsmen around him to keep up.

Jayasuriya: He was just mentally prepared for all their bowlers. That hundred from him was just superb. One of the absolute best.

It was also a very hot day in Colombo. I remember them extending our drinks breaks to help the players cope with the dehydration.

Jayawardene: They tried different tactics against me. Their fast bowlers bowled wide outside off to me for a while, trying to dry me up. They had different bowlers who would attack and some would bowl a negative line just to keep things quiet. I just had to play those little battles, and every time, I managed to score runs. I knew they were under pressure. I didn't feel like the fast bowlers could trouble me on that surface. Mostly what I was doing with the quicks was to use the pace as much as possible and play it through third man or fine leg. I wanted them to bowl straight at me so I could get runs on the leg side. I wasn't chasing much on the off side.

Although Jayasuriya's assault had helped dull the new-ball threat, Boje remained a big weapon for South Africa on a worn pitch. His battle with Jayawardene would go on to define the innings, and by extension, the Test.

Sangakkara: When Mahela's in that kind of form, he puts every bad ball you bowl away for four and then creates new opportunities with his innovations. Boje should have found it easy to bowl on that pitch, but bowling to Mahela on that particular day was very, very difficult. He was always looking to score and come at you. But we were still nervous in the dressing room because a couple of quick wickets and we would be in trouble.

Farveez Maharoof:

Farveez Maharoof: "Lasith, first delivery, played one of the best on-drives I've ever seen. I faced about a hundred-odd deliveries to score 29 and this guy just walks in and pulls out one of the best drives to win the match" Lee Warren / © Getty Images

Jayawardene: I thought: let's try and put Boje under pressure and take him down, because everyone else was bowling seam-up and seam-up bowlers weren't too tough on that wicket. I went inside out a couple of times against him, and there were a few sweeps as well.

Maharoof: We thought we had the batting to win it, because in the first innings, Nos. 6 to 8 had all scored runs. When I went out to bat, we still had over 70 to get. Mahela, on the other side, was calmness personified. It was much easier for me, because I knew I just had to protect the wicket from my end and Mahela would do the rest. He's very easy to bat with because he doesn't put much pressure on you. He's captained most of the games I played for Sri Lanka, and he's very transparent - what you see is what you get.

Jayawardene's 123 would take Sri Lanka to the brink of victory, but not quite over the line. With 11 runs to get, he ran down the pitch at Boje and edged him to slip. Sri Lanka were seven down, with a well-set Maharoof at the crease.

Hall: It got right down to the wire and the ball was just starting to reverse. We wanted to get a seam bowler back on, and most of them were not getting as much reverse as I was. I remember a ball reversing and just missing the stumps.

Maharoof: Chaminda Vaas was batting with me for a little, but he chased one outside the off stump and AB took a magnificent catch in the slips off Hall - one of the best catches I've ever seen. He had to dive low to his left and he made a spectacular one-hand grab. We were eight down with four runs still to get.

When Murali walked in at No. 10, I got a message from Mahela and Moody asking me to take the risk and finish the game. Hall had five more balls to go in the over and I know there's only one way Murali knows how to play. For me to go and tell him to play a different way is quite unfair. So I just told him to hit it if it's there to be hit. He swung at three and missed. Then he managed to get bat on one and we ran two - the ball went through extra cover. Then he swung and got bowled.

You've not heard the last of this: although South Africa lost the series, they went on to be unbeaten in away series for nearly a decade - winning ten and drawing five between October 2007 and July 2015

You've not heard the last of this: although South Africa lost the series, they went on to be unbeaten in away series for nearly a decade - winning ten and drawing five between October 2007 and July 2015 Lee Warren / © Getty Images

Sangakkara: There were a lot of nerves in the dressing room. I can assure you from having been in a few of those situations that Murali would have been talking quite a lot out of nervousness and getting upset with some of the shots being played. If someone went for a quick single, you'd definitely have Murali up and shouting from the dressing room. People would have been sitting in one spot. You wouldn't be allowed to move, and you'd get yelled at if you did. God forbid you moved and someone lost a wicket.

Maharoof: After Murali got out, the next over was bowled by Boje. I couldn't take too many risks against him because he was bowling into the rough, and by this stage the rough was pretty bad. He had bowled one to Vaasy that went into the rough and bounced over his shoulder. The umpires could have called it one bouncer for the over (laughs). With my reputation as a big hitter, I could have gone for the big shot and finished it off, but there was something telling me: "Don't be a hero. Just take a single, because that will tie the game and we'll win the series."

Thanks to my good luck, I got a full delivery from Boje that I punched away from mid-off. I thought it went for a four but it was fielded. I straight away went to Lasith, who was the No. 11, and told him: "Just back yourself. Don't take any pressure, because we've won the series. Just be yourself."

And then Lasith, first delivery, played one of the best on-drives I've ever seen. I faced about a hundred-odd deliveries to score 29 and this guy just walks in and pulls out one of the best drives to win the match.

Although Boje took four wickets in the second innings, this match would be the last of his 43 Tests.

Arthur: I don't want to sell Boje short. At the time, it was really tough to be a spinner in South Africa. He was more than serviceable. He was wholehearted and he gave everything. We wanted to have a spinner who could hold the game because we had guys who could attack with pace. I know he didn't play Test cricket again and I guess the thinking kind of moved on after that. But it wasn't a bad tour for him.

Hall: I felt for Nicky, because I think when we go to the subcontinent, we tend to think our spinners will be able to do what their spinners do, but the truth is that their batters can handle the spin and the conditions a lot better. And that's what he saw.

Arthur: Despite that, it was one of the best Test matches of all time and I think it kind of flies under the radar. I think we lost the game during the 62-run partnership between Mahela and Maharoof. Afterwards we were disappointed, but I wouldn't say gutted. We felt we had played well. And in a funny way, that series was a blessing in disguise, because it allowed us to have a look at other guys and gave us an indication of what we needed to do to win overseas. And it led to the emergence of some of our best players.

Maharoof: For me, it's one of the most memorable occasions playing for Sri Lanka, because I haven't won a lot of games with the bat. That was one of the best games I've ever played. The celebrations went quite long.

Jayawardene: It was brilliant because it was not only the highest run chase, we were on a roll as a team as well. We were winning lots of matches in that time. Beating South Africa was special. This was one of those matches that you put in that calibre and say: each innings was tough, and each day was a tough day, and lots of things happened.

It wasn't a Test we should have won. We were behind from day one. It was a struggle. But it gave us a lot of confidence about what we could achieve as a group.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent and Firdose Moonda the South Africa correspondent