Dinesh Chandimal officially stepped into the captaincy about 48 hours before the beginning of a Test, and his team very nearly lost it, against Zimbabwe. Then, as he was preparing for the biggest home series this year, against India, Chandimal contracted pneumonia, and was out for the first Test.
Nominally, he was the captain, of course. He turned up to the press conferences, strode out to the toss, and made all the usual noises about needing to improve in all three areas at the presentations. But Sri Lanka, playing largely as they had under Mathews, had not begun to respond to their new leader. Against Zimbabwe and India, it had not yet begun to feel like Chandimal's team.
Now, finally, the man has been able to put a stamp on his outfit. The boldness that had once been key to his batting began to show in his leadership as well. Chandimal's first major decision on tour was to field five bowlers in Abu Dhabi, thereby backing batsmen who had failed spectacularly against India to come good away from home. In both matches, the daring paid off. There were major batting failures as well, of course, but Sri Lanka were just good enough with the ball to emerge 2-0. Chandimal suggested the mettle with which Sri Lanka played was a quality he hoped would define his team through his captaincy.
"As a captain I am looking for commitment, attitude and discipline from the players," he said. "The selectors have also supported me to create the culture and passion we had in the past. You can tell when they are in the middle that we are really enjoying it.
"The main thing is our attitude. It makes a lot of difference. And the management and selectors gave the team a lot of confidence."
Sri Lanka had to fall back on much of that confidence in the fourth innings of the Dubai Test, as Pakistan made a charge for the target. Sri Lanka's was not the most straightforward defence of a good score. Between Pakistan collapses, in which they lost 5 wickets for 52 runs and later 5 further wickets for 23, there was a 173-run partnership through which Sri Lanka had to hold their nerve.
In addition to the excellent counter-attack that Sarfraz Ahmed and Asad Shafiq put together however, Sri Lanka also had to contend with a wet ball on the wicketless night session of the penultimate day, Chandimal said. It had long been thought that dew would play a role in day-night Tests at venues nearer the equator.
On the fifth afternoon, however, after the field had dried, Sri Lanka began taking wickets again. Four Pakistan wickets fell to the second new ball, which was taken seven overs into play on day five.
"It was tough last night. We did not expect dew will come, but last night it was there," Chandimal said. "So it was tough for the spinners. But this morning, we had more than 120 runs to defend, so we all knew that in this session the ball will grip, as we have two experienced spinners in Rangana Herath and Dilruwan Perera. I knew they would do their job in this session and I am really happy with the way we played."
That Sri Lanka had worrying moments in the fourth innings at all, however, was thanks to their own poor batting, after claiming a lead of 220. Against a Pakistan attack missing Mohammad Amir, Sri Lanka collapsed to 96 all out in the space of 26 overs. Despite the eventual triumph, Chandimal bemoaned the lost opportunity to lock Pakistan out of the match much earlier than they did.
"After we got a lead of 220 in the first innings, we spoke to the boys and said if we can score 100 runs for three or four wickets, then they need 350, so we can put Pakistan away. But we did not click as a batting unit in the second innings. In the end, we thought 315 was still a really good total on this track. We all know that here in Dubai, it spins more than Abu Dhabi. So credit goes to all the bowlers. They did a fantastic job throughout the series."