On the final day of the series, Clarke played a true captain’s innings to deny Sri Lanka any hope of winning the match, which ended in a draw that was as good as a victory for Australia.
Sri Lanka began the morning needing quick wickets to knock Australia over and set up a chase. By tea, Tillakaratne Dilshan’s men had added only two breakthroughs to the three wickets they had taken on the fourth afternoon, and they were left not only to rue their slow batting in a match they had to win, but also to wonder how long their attack will take to deliver them a Test win in the post-Muttiah Muralitharan era.
Rangana Herath toiled manfully to earn a career-best 7 for 157, but the harsh truth is that Sri Lanka haven’t won a Test since Murali last played for them in July 2010. And by losing a home series for just the third time in ten years, they have fallen to fifth on the ICC rankings list. Besides Herath, none of the bowlers looked threatening on the final day, not that their task was an easy one on a pitch offering nothing.
There was a glimmer of hope early, when Phillip Hughes (126) top-edged Herath to square leg, having added only four to his overnight total. But that brought Clarke and Michael Hussey together, and they proceeded to bat Sri Lanka out of the game in a 176-run partnership, an Australian fifth-wicket record against Sri Lanka, beating the 155 set by David Hookes and Allan Border in the first Test ever played between the two countries.
And while Hussey missed the chance to score his third hundred of the series, falling for 93, Clarke didn’t waste his opportunity to end a drought that stretched back to Australia’s tour of New Zealand last March. It was an outstanding effort from Clarke, for when he came to the crease late on day four, a Sri Lanka victory was very much a possibility.
He batted precisely the way a captain should in such circumstances, first and foremost guarding his wicket fiercely, but also ticking the scoreboard over to add to Sri Lanka’s problems. At one point during the morning, he was 24 from 80 deliveries, but he lifted his rate as the day wore on, three times advancing down the pitch to Herath to drive him down the ground for six.
Although he survived a stumping chance when Prasanna Jayawardene failed to glove the ball cleanly, Clarke provided a masterclass in handling spin, using his feet and smothering the turn where he could. He brought up his century in exactly that manner, from his 139th ball, dancing down the pitch to clip Herath wide of mid-on for a boundary, and it was a fine way to cap off a tour during which his captaincy has been bold and thoughtful.
Eventually, Clarke fell for 112 driving a catch to mid-on from the bowling of Herath, following some banter between Clarke and Kumar Sangakkara, and the chirping continued as Clarke walked off the field. But the most important thing was that he had ensured a series win.
The only remaining point of interest was whether Hussey would finish his incredible tour with a century in each innings of a Test for the first time, having scored 118 in the first innings. Alas, he top-edged a sweep off Dilshan and was caught for 93. Still, he was unequivocally the Player of the Series, with scores of 95, 15, 142, 118 and 93, as well as two wickets and a stunning catch.
It continued a remarkable renaissance for Hussey, 36, whose past two series, the Ashes at home and this Sri Lankan tour, have been the most prolific in his Test career. Herath also produced his best Test series, easily topping the wicket tally from either side with 16 at an average of 23, despite missing the second Test to injury, but it will hardly be a series he’ll remember with fondness.
Still, he finished off strongly, securing his first six-for when Brad Haddin (30) was caught at wide mid-off, and that became a seven-wicket haul when he trapped Peter Siddle lbw for 26 as the sun set on the SSC. It was also his 100th Test wicket, making him the fourth Sri Lanka player to the milestone, after Muralitharan, Chaminda Vaas and Lasith Malinga.
Australia were finally bowled out for 488, and Sri Lanka had to bat for two overs before the captains could agree to an early end. Clarke handed the ball to Trent Copeland and Nathan Lyon, who both debuted during the series, and finished with one over each.
It was a fitting way to end a series in which Australia’s debutants – Lyon, Copeland and Shaun Marsh – played key roles. Their next job is to take on the world No.2, South Africa, in Cape Town and Johannesburg. For now, Clarke and his men can celebrate. Finally, they are moving in the right direction.