But Mathews skied the next delivery to long-on, where Daniel Christian held his nerve to take the catch, ensuring Australia remained unbeaten in the Commonwealth Bank Series. And while Australia did, for the most part, bowl and field well, they could consider themselves fortunate to have escaped with victory after posting what appeared a sub-par total, of 231, with Michael Clarke (57) the only man to score a half-century.
Sri Lanka were on track in the chase before a middle-order collapse left too much to Mathews and the tail. That Mathews nearly got them home was remarkable, as was his 46-run tenth-wicket stand with Dhammika Prasad, but his dismissal for 64 should at least mean the rest of the batting order is held accountable for a disappointing effort that undid the fine work of the bowlers.
The Australia bowlers were also impressive. Xavier Doherty was the standout with a miserly 2 for 24 from his ten overs but there were other positives from the hosts in the field. Starc hooped the new ball and claimed an early wicket, Christian picked up two victims to add to his handy 33 with the bat, Clint McKay completed a terrific run-out from side-on and Matthew Wade enhanced his reputation with a stumping and a wonderful diving catch.
Despite the early loss of Upul Tharanga, who edged a Starc outswinger to Clarke at slip in the fourth over, Sri Lanka seemed to have the chase in control as Tillakaratne Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara and Dinesh Chandimal all looked comfortable at the crease. It was a Sri Lankan error – and a great throw from McKay – that led to Sangakkara’s dismissal for 22 when he pushed into the leg side and took off for a single.
But both he and his partner Dilshan hesitated after a few steps, and the stop-start confusion resulted in Sangakkara trying to return to his crease only to be beaten by a side-on direct hit from the bowler McKay, who had collected the ball from short midwicket. As he walked off, Sangakkara directed a glare towards Dilshan, knowing that if their 50-run stand had continued a while longer, Sri Lanka would have been in a terrific position.
Instead, Dilshan’s scoring-rate slowed – he had struck three searing boundaries through the off side early in his innings – and on 40 from 56 deliveries he was caught behind off Ryan Harris when the ball tickled the inside edge. Another straightforward catch to Wade followed when Mahela Jayawardene tried to steer Christian to third man but succeeded only in feathering behind.
In the next over Doherty struck the first of his two blows. The WACA is not known as a spinner’s paradise but Doherty extracted severe turn in to the left-hander Lahiru Thirimanne, who saw the ball pitch outside off and sneak between bat and pad to take the leg stump. Impressed by what he saw from Doherty, Clarke decided to bowl some left-arm spin himself and broke through with his first ball when, from around the wicket, he skidded one on and struck Chandimal in front for 37.
That was followed by an excellent catch from Wade, who dived to his right in front of first slip to snare Nuwan Kulasekara off the bowling of Christian. At 7 for 143, Sri Lanka’s hopes seemed to have disappeared, a feeling that was only enforced further when Doherty turned a ball past the outside edge of an advancing Sachithra Senanayake, who was stumped by Wade, and when Lasith Malinga edged behind off McKay.
At that stage, Sri Lanka still needed 52 runs, and through Mathews and Prasad they nearly got there. At the change of innings they deserved to be favourites. Jaywardene had sent Australia in, and while it was an unexpected decision it proved not a bad one as Sri Lanka’s sharp fielding helped restrict Australia to 231.
Clarke (57) had assistance from Christian during the only half-century partnership of the innings but when the offspinner Sachithra Senanayake broke that stand in the 40th over Australia faced the prospect of not batting out their time. Christian was stumped for 33 when he failed to pick the straighter delivery and Clarke fell in the following over.
He was the victim of an excellent catch by the opposing captain, Jayawardene, who moved low to his right to snaffle the chance at midwicket off the bowling of Angelo Mathews. Clarke had not found it easy to keep the scoring-rate up and had struck only four boundaries in his 88-ball stay, but until that moment he had at least provided an anchor for the innings
Some useful late runs came from McKay and Starc, and Sri Lanka would ultimately rue the 39 runs added by the last two pairs. McKay had survived an edge behind on 15 when Sangakkara didn’t cleanly pouch a low ball, and it was a rare miss for Sri Lanka in what was generally an impressive fielding effort.
Several Australia batsmen fell to fine catches: David Hussey’s leading edge off Malinga was collected at cover by Thirimanne, who had to dive forward and to his left, and Clarke was snapped up by a quick-moving Jayawardene at midwicket off the bowling of Mathews. But the best was Kulasekara’s return catch to get rid of Michael Hussey for 23. He pushed at a fuller ball from Kulasekara, who dived to his right to take a wonderful one-handed catch.
Kulasekara had also been the man who gave Sri Lanka their positive start, when he picked up a wicket in the fourth over, when Wade prodded outside off and edged behind for 1. Wade was the quiet partner in the opening stand as David Warner played a few shots that encouraged the Perth crowd to think a repeat of his blazing Test hundred at the venue might be in the making.
His lofted six off over long-on against Malinga was the standout stroke, but on 34 from 28 deliveries he played on to Mathews, who got a ball to straighten just enough. It was the first of several good things Mathew did in the match. Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, they needed one more.