When Sri Lanka went to England after a memorable world cup (in more ways than one), they set much like Columbus out to discover the new world. The Lankans had a new captain at the helm and were without their finest sailor, who has rode them through the rough seas and discovered land. The Lankans would soon discover, as did the crew of Columbus, that braving a new world is no easy task.
Sri Lanka has been a force to be reckoned with in the Test arena in the last couple of years. They climbed to number two in the Test rankings for a short period and have always been competitive. Thanks, in large, to batting extraordinaires Sangakkara, Jayawardena and Samraweera and to the sheer brilliance of the little magician Muttiah Muralitharan. Some pretenders like Ajantha Mendis and Lasith Malinga also made couple of blips in the radar, which allowed the Lankan team to keep up their momentum during this significant run.
Even though, as the cricketing oracles proclaimed, a rude shock was awaiting them after retirement of Murali, Sri Lanka, nor the so called prophets, were aware of the other even more lethal shock which was about to deplete their already wounded soul.
Batting collapses… In the first innings of the last seven Test matches,Sri Lanka scored more than 200 only in two occasions. Even more baffling, was the nature of these abrupt debacles.
After a good start, or at an end of a good partnership, wickets do not appear to end at one. A whole collapse, reminiscent of the 90s England side, begin to form and like the English, the Lankans have paid heavy prize for it.
Batsmen seem to be getting starts, 20s and the 30s and then loose focus. They seem to be batting themselves into corners by being ultra-defensive and cautious, when they need not be.
The rate of scoring has dropped to an all time low. Sri Lanka have always had attacking batsmen scoring at a half-decent pace, over and above the age old accepted three runs per over in Tests. But recent scoring rates were well below 2.5 runs per over. Even more disturbing, they were being bundled out by average bowling units, barring the new age English attack.
The Australian team, who toured Sri Lanka recently, for all their courage and professionalism will not even brace the skin of their legendary quadrants of recent times. And the current Pakistan bowling line up, who dismissed them for 197 during the first innings in the first Test in UAE on a cement deck, will not give many batsmen sleepless nights today or in the near future.
The mere fact that two batsmen averaging over 50 in Tests, with close to 18,000 runs between them, seemed to struggle – other than the odd master-class – has not helped matters at all. Their swashbuckling captain has lost his magic touch which made him simply irresistible in the last two seasons. The so-called Test specialists certainly occupied the crease but have not affected the run of play in no uncertain terms. The aptitude which had always made the Lankans competitive, on the subcontinent at least, has deserted them.
Even after making up for the lacklustre displays with the above mentioned master-class, or by an innings of valor of a impetuous-rising talent, Sri Lanka’s batting has not fully clicked, or not to the extent in which Test matches are won.
If batting failures were unforetoled, the lack of penetration in bowling was expected. The current bowling attack boasts three fast bowlers with a total of 19 Test matches between them, with bowling averages over 40 – by no means strike bowlers. Or they have not yet manifested in to be.
At no point in the last seven Tests have they have looked like they would rip through a batting line-up. Rangana Herath, the single international quality spinner in the Lankan ranks (according to their captain), is the only bowler to have played over 25 Tests. With the introduction of two promising prospects in Shaminda Eranga and Nuwan Pradeep, a platform looks to be in place but to mature into quality Test bowlers the two newbie’s need to be given a lot of time, attention and space leaving the Lankan bowling in its most vulnerable stage in the past two decades.
A Test match cannot be won without having bowlers to take 20 wickets. Also, a Test match cannot be won by scoring 197 in the first innings. Moreover, if you do not have quality in the bowling, you need to make it count in batting, which the Lankan team have failed to do in the recent past.
If they are to even give themselves a chance of overcoming their current plight, the cracks needs to be addressed, assessed and fixed. There is enough talent and brains surrounding the Lankan team to crawl back from this rot; bowling line-ups of lesser quality have been fielded by teams.
Even the greatest of batting line-ups have gone through slumps. Some have come out of it, some haven’t and some are even going through it now. The most prudent observer would tell you it is a phase, a transitional one, and once put to bed will be better for it. Yet, it’s easier said than done.