Another Test series and another defeat by the same margin as Sri Lanka strive to find the right combination for batting places to fill the massive slots left behind by the retirements of Tillakaratne Dilshan (in 2013), Mahela Jayawardene (in 2014) and Kumar Sangakkara (in 2015).
To say that Sri Lanka have still not arrived at a proper solution to the problem it faces in filling the shoes of these icons is to say the least. They have tried several players in the position of opener, the key number three slot and also the frail middle-order but none have managed to seal a place with any noteworthy performances that one can safely say that the void has been truly filled.
From the current crop of players forming the Test squad only skipper Angelo Mathews is guaranteed a place in the team whereas all the other batting positions are up for grabs.
It is not that we don’t have talent there is certainly plenty of them, but the problem with players vying for the vacant spots is that they have not come through a system where they have played sufficient amount of first-class cricket to compete at Test level.
The recently concluded series against India once again exposed the weaknesses in the Lankan batting for apart from Mathews who hit two centuries and scored the highest amount of runs from both sides – 339, the performances of the rest was pretty inconsistent. It is this inconsistency in the batting order that is costing Sri Lanka Test matches. Their failure to come up with a first innings total in excess of 350 in any of the three Tests meant that the batting was always under pressure and the captain could not set any attacking fields for a long period of time for his bowlers because there wasn’t sufficient amount of runs on the board to defend.
Once again the batsmen floundered against spin with Ravichandran Ashwin (off-spin) and Amit Mishra (leg-spin) accounting for 36 of the 60 wickets that fell to bowlers in the series. In the previous series against Pakistan it was the leg-spin of Yasir Shah (24 wickets) that proved their undoing.
Sri Lanka’s astonishing win at Galle when all seemed lost was proved to be a flash in the pan the way they performed in the next two Tests. Both India and Sri Lanka are going through a phase of rebuilding and the series proved that our Asian neighbours had their noses well ahead. To come to Sri Lanka and beat them in their own conditions is a victory for the Indian team who achieved this feat after a gap of 22 years.
The biggest problem for Sri Lanka is trying to find a suitable batsman to fill the no. 3 slot left vacant by Kumar Sangakkara. Every good team has a strong no. 3 batsman and that has been evident in the most successful Test sides of recent times. Over the years that vital slot for Sri Lanka has been successfully filled by Roy Dias, Ranjan Madugalle, Asanka Gurusinha, Roshan Mahanama, Russel Arnold and Sangakkara.
Lahiru Thirimanne has been spoken of a lot as the likely contender to succeed Sangakkara at no. 3 but he is still a long way from stepping into the great man’s shoes. Sri Lanka recalled Upul Tharanga and slotted him in that position against Pakistan and he responded with two forties, but against India Tharanga was asked to open and Dimuth Karunaratne whom one thought had formed what would be a long standing opening combination with Kaushal Silva was pushed to no. 3 slot. Needless to say the move never worked for Tharanga made 4 and 0 and Karunaratne 11 and 0.
The present lot of batsmen are the best that Sri Lanka has and they will need to deliver if the team is to become a competitive unit once again. Consistency is what the team is lacking and that can come only with a strong batting line up. Sri Lanka’s forte over the years has been their batting which in recent times has failed to produce batsmen of the highest calibre which they have in the past.
There’s not much that Mathews can do as skipper. He has done his part as captain with bat, ball and on the field.
“It’s going to be a difficult task. We haven’t got that many seniors in the side. We will take a lot of time and we need to get the processes right. It will be tough when you are playing quality oppositions. We have played six games and lost four. It’s going to be tough no doubt, but we will fight hard and plan things out for the future,” Mathews said.
Dinesh Chandimal and Kusal Perera are two of the most exciting batters who can make a name for themselves in the future and carry Sri Lanka cricket forward. Perera emulated Chandimal’s feat against South Africa at Durban in 2011 by scoring twin fifties on his Test debut in the final Test at the SSC. It is a strange coincidence that both players were keeping wickets for the team during their debuts.
The most heartening news to emerge from the Sri Lankan camp was the bowling effort put on by Dhammika Prasad throughout the series. Having overcome the series of injuries that has constantly affected his career Prasad has taken over the role of spearhead of the Lankan bowling attack and his 15 wickets @ 23.60 was testimony to how hard he has worked.
Nuwan Pradeep proved an ideal foil to Prasad and along with young Dushmantha Chameera, Suranga Lakmal and Shaminda Eranga Sri Lanka have a fine set of fast bowlers to exploit any condition, provided they can be kept free of injuries.
Left-armer Rangana Herath still continues to be Sri Lanka’s no, 1 spinner but his performances of late shows a gradual decline and one wonders how long he will be able to withstand the rigours of playing five-day Test cricket especially with his crocked knees for which surgery is already overdue.
Off-spinner Tharindu Kaushal looks his likely successor but with his action being reported to the ICC one fears how effective he will be if he has to remodel his action. Most bowlers especially spinners like Saeed Ajmal and Sachitra Senanayake were never the same bowlers after remodelling their bowling actions to conform within the permitted 15 degree rule. Since the retirement of the great Muthiah Muralitharan the spin department has been spearheaded by Herath for the last five years and he has no doubt delivered handsomely. But with the passing of time the extra work load has taken its toll on Herath and Sri Lanka will need to look for someone to succeed him if Kaushal’s future is doubtful.
It was a personal victory for India’s new captain Virat Kohli who came out on top in his first full Test series at the helm. It was a remarkable comeback by India after their shocking loss at Galle to record back to back victories in Colombo to take the series.
Kohli explained that it was the belief the team had that enabled them to make a remarkable turnaround after the loss at Galle.
“One thing we decided was to stick together as a team, don’t worry too much. Obviously you will be criticised when you lose or have a bad performance but it’s important as cricketers not to focus on that. It’s important to focus on what the team needs to do in the next game, prepare for the next day even if it’s a travelling day, rather than think about what has happened,” said Kohli.
“It hurt a lot to lose the Galle game but I would like to praise the guys on how well they stuck together. They did not discuss on what went wrong too much. We enjoyed each other’s company even more we took part in team activities. We had lots of fun and decided to keep the mood positive and we believed that we can turn the series around.
“The way we lost in Galle was because we played bad cricket in two sessions and we won six sessions there. There were a lot of positives to take from that game and we focussed on that rather than the bad cricket we played. It took a lot of effort from the guys to stay positive and turn things around we believed we could do. I am sitting here talking about the series win because of the belief we had even after losing the first game, that’s very important.”
Sri Lanka’s next series is against West Indies at home in October for two Tests and one-dayers before they fly to New Zealand in December for two further Tests.