Sri Lanka began their new era in international cricket without their two most experienced and prolific run scorers Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara with a 1-2 loss to Pakistan in the three-Test series concluded at Pallekele on Monday.
The win handed Pakistan their first series victory in Sri Lanka after six years. They had lost the last three series played here by margins of 2-0 (2009), 1-0 (2012) and 2-0 (2014). The match-winner for Sri Lanka in those three series was left-arm spinner Rangana Herath who captured a total of 53 wickets in eight Tests.
However on this occasion Pakistan had done their homework well on Herath and came determined to see him off the attack which they did successfully. Herath managed just two wickets in the first two Tests conceding 218 runs and Sri Lanka were forced to leave him out of the decisive final Test at Pallekele and play inexperienced off-spinner Tharindu Kaushal which suited Pakistan.
Herath had been a thorn in Pakistan’s flesh and in his absence they capitalized on it fully to chase down an imposing target of 377 in the fourth innings to win by a handsome seven wickets and with it the series.
It was Pakistan’s experience that paid off in the end that saw them win the series. In Younis Khan and skipper Misbah-ul-Haq they had two of the most experienced campaigners in the team, experienced enough to get the side out of any tight situations as they showed at Pallekele. Shan Masood benefitted a great deal batting in that lengthy partnership of 242 with Younis and helped himself to his maiden Test hundred. Younis and Misbah without a single half-century up to the second innings of the Pallekele Test saved their best for the last – seeing their team through to an improbable win with an unbroken century stand, with each of them contributing lavishly – Younis a monumental 171 not out, the 11th occasion he has gone past 150 in a Test innings in his career, and Misbah an unbeaten 59.
There was little that Sri Lanka could do against these batsmen on a pitch that had promised a lot on the first three days but eventually turned out to be a flat track by the fourth and fifth days. The ball hardly beat the bat during Pakistan’s run chase which showed how easy batting was out in the middle. To the credit of the Lankan bowlers it must be said that the three-pronged seam attack bowled well in the circumstances and made Pakistan work hard for every run. The only disappointment was off-spinner Kaushal who lacked the experience to exploit a fourth and fifth day pitch which offered him turn. He was either too short or too full and lacked the consistency to bowl a tight line and length while at the same time deploying the tricks he had in his armoury – the off-break and the doosra.
Overall, Sri Lanka cannot be too disappointed how the Test series panned out for them. Here was a young team under Angelo Mathews trying to settle down after losing two of the most prolific run scorers in the history of the game – Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. It was not only the runs they scored that mattered but also the expert advice which Mathews had lived with for the past two years since he took over as captain. In tight situations and when things were not going Sri Lanka’s way these two past masters provided invaluable advice to the captain.
In this series Mathews didn’t have anyone with that vast knowledge and experience to turn to.
However he was brave enough to state: “Marvan (Atapattu, the coach) has a lot of experience on and off the field. He’s helping me a lot. Most of the younger guys even come up with a few ideas. They come up with very good ideas. It’s nice to have the younger guys come up to you also and say, “Look, let’s try this out.” It’s good to have that kind of atmosphere in the dressing room. That will only benefit the team.
“Over 15 years we’ve seen Mahela and Kumar play, and we can’t measure the young players on their scale. In the past years, if one misses out, the other scores a hundred most of the time. We have to be patient with this side. We’re all learning.”
One of the plus factors for Sri Lanka in this series was the fitness of their fast bowlers. For the first time in his patchy career he played a full Test series without breaking down.
In the absence of Shaminda Eranga (back injury), Prasad took on the responsibility of leading the pace attack and bowled well within himself to capture the most number of wickets for Sri Lanka – 14. He had good support from Nuwan Pradeep, Suranga Lakmal and Dushmantha Chameera, the most exciting ‘find’ for Sri Lanka with his extra pace and ability to hurry the batsmen into their shot making. In the only Test he played before a side strain kept him out at Pallekele, Chameera showed what he is capable of taking four wickets to help Sri Lanka record their solitary win of the series at the P Sara Oval.
After a long time since the retirements of Sanath Jayasuriya and Marvan Atapattu, Sri Lanka seems to have a settled opening pair in Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva, who each scored a century in the series. With Sangakkara appearing in only two Tests the selectors were forced to recall Upul Tharanga to fill the no. 3 slot. The left-hander didn’t disappoint scoring two 40s and he should be persisted with in that position once Sangakkara departs for good after the Indian series. It is a vital position in the batting order and Tharanga looks the most suitable player to fill that slot until of course Lahiru Thirimanne is ready to take over if that is the position he is most suited for.
Thirimanne had a poor series with the bat averaging 18 but Mathews had a lot of faith in his deputy.
“It does happen to any cricketer. You do run into poor form. He only scored about 90 runs. We are backing him because we know that he is a very good player,” Mathews said. “We can’t really expect the guys to be Sangakkaras and Mahelas right now because they are still finding their way in Test cricket. A lot of them haven’t played much Test cricket. When a batsman is having a rough time you’ve got to deal with it carefully. You can’t blame it on him. I think he will definitely take responsibility in the future.”
To bolster the batting and to add a little bit of experience to the line-up Sri Lanka recalled Jehan Mubarak after eight years since he last played a Test. The gangling left-hander obliged with an important knock in the second innings at Pallekele that enabled Sri Lanka to recover from a disastrous start and set Pakistan a challenging total to chase. What role Mubarak will play in future Test series is a matter of conjecture. For the upcoming series with India they will probably require him as Sangakkara will retire from Test cricket after the first two Tests of the series.
Until Sri Lanka has a settled batting line-up there is bound to be some changes taking place now and again, experiments will be made with new players and some recalled like Tharanga and Mubarak for this series. The team is currently going through a transition period and as Mathews quite rightly pointed out the results may not always come in favour of Sri Lanka.
Mathews had another wonderful series as captain heading the batting once again and proving that he plays his best cricket when responsibility is thrust on him. One encouraging factor is that he has taken to bowl on a regular basis which gives the side more variety. He sent down 43 overs, the second most he has bowled in a series in his career.
Dinesh Chandimal proved what a good wicket-keeper he is with 14 victims in the series but whether he will be persisted with in that position permanently is questionable. He is too good a batsman to bat as low down as no. 6 or 7 because of his wicket-keeping duties he cannot come any higher than that which means Sri Lanka will not make the maximum use of him as a batsman. He needs to bat much higher in the line-up at least no. 4 and leave the wicket-keeping to someone else. There is certainly no dearth of wicket-keepers in Sri Lanka with Niroshan Dickwella and Kusal Perera waiting on the sidelines.
Kithuruwan Vithanage is a player who needs time to come to terms with playing at the highest level. He has to learn a lot about ball selection and how to adapt to situations before he can start playing fancy shots.
A remarkable change during the series was the Lankan fielding which showed a vast improvement from what it was during the World Cup. The arrival of Michael Main as fitness trainer has a lot to do with the players’ fitness regime.
The biggest threat to Sri Lanka was leg-spinner Yasir Shah who took the batsmen by surprise with his mixture of leg-spin and googlies bowled with speed and accuracy that hardly left the batsman with time to make any late adjustments. The 24 wickets he captured in the series is testimony of his ability to bowl on any surface and pick up wickets. The Lankan batsmen who hardly practice against such quality leg-spin bowling took a little time to grasp how to play him, but at the end of the series they still had not quite mastered him.