Sri Lankans are about to start their first Test tour to Zimbabwe after not so famous, but quite significant 2004 Test series. This tour, 12 years ago, was a landmark one especially for Muttiah Muralitharan, who surpassed Courtney Walsh as the highest wicket taker in Tests while it was an ill-fated affair for the hosts. The hosts had to field a young team of virtually unknowns as senior players had gone on a strike for a number of disputes with Zimbabwe Cricket and thus had to play under a rookie captain in Tatenda Taibu with a handful of Test matches under his name, who was merely 21 by then.
Here we are in 2016, 12 years later, Sri Lanka is visiting for Zimbabwe’s 100th Test. This time the circumstances are very much different from 2004 and they have something important on their hands, a landmark Test. Although Zimbabwe Cricket carries long term issues, they say they want to revive their chances under a new coach, Heath Streak, a prominent figure in Zimbabwe Cricket as well as the 2004 strike and Tatenda Taibu involving with Zimbabwe Cricket in administrative capacity.
On the other hand, Sri Lanka has picked a relatively inexperienced side to the one they fielded during the last couple of Test tours with some noteworthy absentees. Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal, captain and vice-captain respectively, more importantly key players in the middle order, are yet to recover from injuries together with a couple of pace first choice pace bowling options and Rangana Herath is named the captain for the first time in his 17 years on Test Cricket.
As Sri Lanka are to play a Test series in South Africa in December and as most of the experienced players are expected to return to the team, this tour will give Sri Lankan selectors a chance to test the depth of Sri Lanka Cricket as well as players a chance to perform well and have match practice before the significant tour.
There are four uncapped players in the squad while apart from Rangana Herath’s 73 matches no other had played more than 31 matches of Dimuth Karunarathne and 30 of Kaushal Silva and none of them, even Rangana Herath himself had not played a Test match in Zimbabwe.
The latter two being the opening combination and with all the experience having played a significant amount of Tests in several parts of the world, much needed for this young team, have to step up and guide the rest of the line up in order to succeed in the tour. The spotlight will be on both of them as they continuously failed to give a substantial opening partnership during the last 12 to 18 months.
Though concerns were raised during the England tour as well as Australia series, they were retained and Kaushal Silva finally came to form with a much needed century in the last Test match while Dimuth Karunarathne failed for the 6th time in the series. He has been selected on the back of heavy scores in the recently concluded Sri Lanka A series vs West Indies A where he captained. So I think this will be one final chance for both of them to perform and thus to set the tone for the relatively inexperienced but immensely talented middle order.
Kusal Perera, Kusal Mendis, Dhananjaya de Silva and Niroshan Dickwella would make up the middle order and given the named squad I think Asela Gunaratne will make a debut and bat at no. 7. This middle order looks promising if not exciting and Kusal Mendis and Dhananjaya de Silva played vital knocks during the series whitewash of Australia and have already proven their worth and I expect them to utilize this tour to continue their form.
I am more concerned over consistency of Kusal Perera and lack of concentration of Niroshan Dickwella in Test Cricket. Kusal Perera hit a fifty in his debut Test and played some important innings after that but substantial contribution didn’t come along and now that the ill-fated ban is being lifted, he has the perfect opportunity to prove his worth as an attacking batsman is a blessing in disguise for any team in Test Cricket. Niroshan Dickwella too came off a fifty in his Test debut but he failed in every innings he played since then at International level, though he scored heavily in domestic and A tours. More often than not he was seen throwing his wicket away and this will be a huge opportunity for him.
I am disappointed of not selecting Roshen Silva in the squad. He was a member of the Test squad for the Australia series after a long wait and a lot of First Class runs behind him, but was not given a chance. Though he did not score much in the Sri Lanka A series vs West Indies A, I think he should have been given a chance and see how he performs simply as he deserved it, in my opinion.
Considering bowling options, I think Sri Lanka will go with 2 spinners and 2 fast bowlers and one all-rounder. Given the squad I think spinners will be Rangana Herath – Dilruwan Perera or Rangana Herath – Lakshan Sandakan and I expect Suranga Lakmal will play both Tests, subject to fitness, and one or two from Lahiru Gamage, Lahiru Kumara or Kasun Madushanka will debut. Asela Gunaratne will provide variety to this attack as well as an all-round option and I think the pitches there, which are expected to be slow and low, will assist him to bowl his cutters.
As seen during the New Zealand tour of Zimbabwe in September, the pitches were slow and low and unresponsive at times where batsmen who occupied the crease for a longer period were able to perform well as runs were hard to come by and bowlers had to be patient and disciplined.
On another note, this is Rangana Herath’s first assignment as the Test captain of Sri Lanka and although I had not heard or seen him captaining, I am sure he is experienced and professional enough to fulfill the duties which he himself considers an honour and I am looking forward to see how he goes about his captaincy.
This tour will provide a great opportunity to everyone in the team and especially for potential certainties for the tour of South Africa, and they must make sure they perform and are in form as tougher battles lie ahead.