And they have gone and done it again. A target of 377. A pitch threatening to deteriorate, providing movement with the new ball and spin off the old one. An opponent that they have not beaten away for 10 years.
Two quick wickets early on. A five-match rookie who averages less than 20 is joined by a veteran who hasn’t even scored a half-century in the series so far. Two players perhaps fighting for the right to don the Pakistan jersey again, at opposing ends of their international careers.
Only one result was possible. It was a matter of when, not if. Even fools had stopped hoping; only the fools had stopped hoping. Then Pakistan happened and they happened as emphatically as they always do. They hit Sri Lanka like a speeding truck and the Islanders were caught in their headlights.
Angelo Mathews must have been mentally preparing his winning speech — praise the bowlers, mention Kumar Sangakkara, discuss his own performance, graciously say the visitors were worthy opponents and played well. He said all those things, just as the losing captain. He was still unsure how it could have been so.
There was nothing he could have done, he spread the field early on but keeping an attacking field would just have served to end the match quicker. There was nothing his bowlers could have done. They didn’t bowl badly, they tried everything they had, they huffed and they puffed. Shaan Masood and Younus Khan chewed them up and spat them out.
Pakistan are like a particularly bad magician that often fails to perform even the most basic of card tricks but then produces an escape act to make even Harry Houdini proud.
They are the supreme entertainers of cricket. They defy logic, common sense and even basic decency when it comes to following the pattern. Any decent side would have wilted at 13-2, any decent side would have shifted focus to the much more important ODIs at hand, any decent side would have lied down and the Test would have been over in four days. But Pakistan are not any decent side.
Instead, Pakistan made 369 more runs in 96 overs and lost just one more wicket. This was the sixth-highest chase ever in Test history, the highest ever by Pakistan, the highest ever against Sri Lanka and in Sri Lanka, the second-highest in Asia, aided by Pakistan’s highest ever partnership in the fourth-innings. It should not have been that easy, it could not have been that easy. It was illogical, it was nonsensical, it was downright indecent.
There is another team that does this, and Australia’s ‘Australianism’ has entered cricket’s folklore. It has defined the sport perhaps like no other concept has.
“Australianism means single-minded determination to win — to win within the laws, but if necessary, to the last limit within them. It means that where the `impossible' is within the realm of what the human body can do, there are Australians who believe that they can do it — and who have succeeded often enough to make us wonder if anything is impossible to them. It means they have never lost a match — particularly a Test match — until the last run is scored or their last wicket has fallen.”
Thus wrote John Arlott in 1949. It still holds true for the team from Down Under, but it also holds just as true for Pakistan.
However, there is a fine line that divides Australia’s Australianism and Pakistan’s, well, ‘Pakistanism’. The Australians hunt in packs, they are the greatest cricketing nation without a shadow of a doubt — a killing machine. They are like a school of sharks, forever on the hunt, even when hurt. At the slightest sign of weakness in the opposition, they are whipped into a feeding frenzy and their own injuries are forgotten. They are coldblooded, they are ruthless, they are efficient.
Pakistan, on the other hand, are closer to the lone lion shunned away from the pride. He wanders the vast lands without a home, seemingly wounded beyond recovery, forever on his deathbed. But he remains as fearsome as ever — and every now and then, something wakes up the sleeping giant, and when it does, the lion rips apart all who stand in his wake; leaving behind enough blood for all to fear him even when he goes back to sleep.
Those times of sleep are getting longer and longer, and many fear his death is closer now than ever. But in Pallekele the lion proved that he remains as deadly as he ever was.
Far too often the cricket-obsessed country is left frustrated by the side’s unpredictability. And then they go and do something like this, and an entire nation realises in one beautiful moment that it is all worth it, that it is better to be the lion for a day than a sheep for a lifetime.