Now that the Sri Lanka-Australia series is over I thought it is as good a time as any to put my thoughts down on a series that promised so much yet delivered so little.
Sri Lanka became a relative cricketing powerhouse on the back of their 1996 world cup win on home soil. It was thoroughly deserved, for such a tiny country with a small pool of players to reach the loftiest height possible, in cricketing terms at least, was a surprise to many including its own citizens.
Since then Sri Lanka have often held their own, especially in their own backyard. They had a few battle-hardened cricketers after the ’96 world cup who carried scars of heavy defeats in their youth and were nearing the twilight of their careers. These remarkable men guided and galvanized the then youth to make Sri Lanka what it was – a team capable of beating anyone on their day.
Sri Lanka’s newfound strength was built on the back of their one-day success. Their Test team was still relatively weak – they were heavily defeated by the Australians in a landmark Test series in late 1995/early 1996 but bounced back in the one-day triangular that followed, which also featured a very powerful West Indies team.
As a result Sri Lanka was considered to be a very good one-day side but thought to be somewhat middling as a Test side. They did very well in Tests at home but struggled abroad. As for one-dayers, they were extremely hard to beat at home and gave most teams a good run for their money when playing away. Because of Sri Lanka’s mediocre Test record, the results in Tests did not matter as much to most Sri Lankan fans and the one-dayers were often more eagerly anticipated.
Such was Sri Lanka’s one-day prowess that with the advent of T20 cricket the team took to the format like a duck takes to water. They had players who played a natural attacking game and skilled in more than department.
With the retirements of Murali and the under-appreciated Vaas (in my opinion one of the finest left-armers to come from the subcontinent), and the subsequent retirements of Sanga, Mahela and Malinga Sri Lanka’s Test team became very, very mediocre. Apart from Angelo Mathews and, to an extent Herath, no one else could confidently walk into any other Test side. Sri Lanka are that poor. There has been no one to take over from the retiring stalwarts.
Over the last year or two there were a few strong away performances with the fast bowlers, Dhammika Prasad in particular, doing really well. It seemed like new beginnings, the emergence of a brand-new attack. Instead of fielding a sole fast bowler like they used to, whose main purpose was to take the shine off the ball for the spinners, and regularly opening with a spinner in the subcontinent it seemed plausible that Sri Lanka would have a decent fast-bowling attack who could win them matches abroad. Unfortunately, this new found success with the pacemen did not last long as they all succumbed to injury.
Unlike India or Bangladesh, or even Pakistan, Sri Lanka’s tropical weather is more pacemen friendly. I am not suggesting for a second that the hot, steamy and sauna like environments of Colombo, Kandy or Galle makes pace bowling a pleasure but the moistness in the air and the heavy rainfalls give Sri Lankan pitches enough zip for hardworking pacemen, not to mention the high humidity aiding conventional swing. This is evidenced by the success of several foreign fast bowlers who used the conditions to their advantage. If India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were fast bowling graveyards, then Sri Lanka, in the subcontinent, surely has to be where the deceased come to rest i.e. fast bowling heaven.
Mitchell Starc, Ryan Harris, Trent Boult, Tim Southee, any one of the Pakistani fast bowlers; ask them and they will tell you. On traditional Sri Lankan pitches (i.e. not the SSC) fast bowlers have generally thrived. Interestingly, Sri Lankan fast bowlers have better records at home than abroad.
Despite this considerable advantage Sri Lanka have been unable to produce more than a handful of fast bowlers with the current coach declaring the cupboard to be alarmingly “bare”. Sri Lanka had to resort to gamesmanship tactics to win against Australia ala India. True, the victories counted, especially at such a low ebb and against such a mighty opponent, but to veer away from what is traditionally Sri Lankan to produce bunsen burners to sneak victories against the underprepared Aussies was not as satisfying. I would have preferred if we had four fighting fit fast bowlers who bowled their hearts out as a team to lead Sri Lanka 2-1 to victory in the Tests. Now that would have been a hell of a lot more satisfying.
Instead we resorted to deploying bowlers who the Aussies have never seen before, bowlers who thrived on Sri Lanka’s domestic dustbowls and who would be found wanting during their very first international season. I highly doubt Sandakan and Dilruwan Perera will be able to achieve the same level of success again. But as a Sri Lankan fan I’ll savour the once-in-a-lifetime victories.
After winning the Test series comprehensively it was assumed that Sri Lanka would waltz to victory in the one-dayers, traditionally Sri Lanka’s stronger suit for the reasons mentioned above. But the tables turned and Sri Lanka received a belting in the shorter formats. A shame, since it raised questions despite the Test victories.
If Sri Lanka had won the Tests and the one-dayers it would have been reassuring, despite the gamemanship tactics, that Sri Lanka was indeed developing a good team during their period of transition. But the humiliating losses in the limited over formats has revealed how shaky and vulnerable Sri Lanka are as a team. We did not lose the one-dayers due to complacency; we lost them because we did not have good enough players.
Let’s not fool ourselves here. The Australians did not lose the Tests because the Sri Lankans played well, they lost because they did not have the specialist skills to succeed on turning subcontinent pitches. The nature of one-dayers minimises the need for specialist skills and with somewhat neutralised pitches, the two teams were more evenly matched in terms of specialist skills. Sri Lanka were taken to the cleaners. Australia won the one-dayers because they had better players.
Before the early 2000s Sri Lanka’s domestic scene consisted of hardworking seamers, capable batsmen and wily spinners. Most domestic teams fielded atleast two specialist fast bowlers, sometimes even three. The pitches had a little for everyone and players willing to go the extra yard did well and were rewarded. It was a simple but effective formula. Sri Lanka’s transformation as an underdog to a formidable opponent was built on this simple formula. But since becoming a successful international team, this formula, the one that lifted Sri Lanka from the depths of obscurity has now been abandoned. Sri Lankan domestic teams now rely on an army of spinners who bowl on minefields and end up taking bucketloads of cheap wickets. Domestic fast bowlers are now extinct or masquerade as something else. Domestic batsmen do not have the technique required to build an innings as they are often bowled out cheaply by rookie spinners on raging turners and therefore have not spent time in the middle learning the nuances of batting. In addition, these batsmen have never faced pace or swing and seam which makes them ill-equipped when travelling abroad. If these issues are not corrected as a matter of relative urgency Sri Lanka’s period of transition will be indefinite.
The so-called transition period will only end once we start producing players who are capable of playing and succeeding against most teams both home and away. Until then the “transition period” will remain a sorry excuse for Sri Lanka’s poor performances.