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The first Test between Sri Lanka and Australia is scheduled to begin on July 26 at the Pallekele Stadium in Kandy | (Pic by Chathura S. Kodikara)

An entire island nation and a touring Australia national team were eagerly awaiting the announcement of the Sri Lanka squad for the first Test at the time the sun was setting on Wednesday, a day when the visitors demolished a Sri Lankan Board XI convincingly by an innings and 162 runs in a three-day warm-up game.

Test cricket is about reading the opposition and picking one’s team so that the opposition’s weaknesses can be exposed. This is what exactly Aussie coach Darren Lehmann had been trying to do, but his job was made all the more difficult as Sri Lanka delayed announcing its squad till Thursday. The first Test is  scheduled to begin in Pallekele, Kandy on July 26.
Sri Lanka is being judged from all corners these days. Having just got accustomed to local conditions again after their disastrous tour of England, the island’s cricket officials are trying to put in place a decent bowling attack, even before they pick the playing XI. The bowling department in the Sri Lankan camp looks pretty gloomy. A scribe attending a recent post England-Sri Lanka Test tour press conference saying, “It’s pretty rare to find a fast bowler on a cricket ground in Sri Lanka these days” sums up the sad situation with regard to the availability of fast bowlers in the host nation. And this is why the selectors have flown down fast bowlers Vishwa Fernando and Asitha Fernando along with spinner Lakshan Sandakan from England to strengthen the bowling.

There are two factors which can give Sri Lanka some solace. One is that it will bank on spin more than on strengthening its pace bowling attack. The other fact is that Australia is chattering non-stop about the chances of its slow bowlers on this tour. The pitches that would be prepared for the Tests are expected to be flat before deteriorating as the game progresses. However, the two teams, especially Sri Lanka, needs fast bowlers because when playing the Test version of the game there can’t be weaknesses in the key areas of the cricket that’s played.

Angelo Mathews (1)Sri Lanka perhaps used the best ploy available when giving Australia a limb-loosener at the P. Sara Oval. The home team didn’t field any big names other than for skipper Milinda Siriwardene. This meant that the Australians didn’t get an opportunity to play against any of the key members of the Test team.

But all that meticulous planning might not have spoilt Australia’s plans of starting their preparations. They made 431 for 9 in their first innings and what must be taken into account is that the Australian batters came on top in negotiating spin bowling on a turning pitch.

Sri Lanka skipper Angelo Mathews is once again left with the task of leading a team whose members are experiencing a situation where the chips are down. Given the situation Mathews sees the inclusion of other budding cricketers in the likes of Dhananjaya de Silva, Roshane Silva, Nuwan Pradeep Fernando and Dilruwan Perera in a 15 member squad that has been named for the series. But no team can think of being competitive if they don’t have a bowling line-up which can claim 20 wickets in a game. Sri Lanka is very far away from building this kind of strength in their bowling attack.

All eyes are on Steve O’ Keefe whose all-round performance against the Sri Lanka Board President’s XI came in for praise. Some of the other Australians to watch are David Warner, skipper Steve Smith, Josh Hazelwood, Usman Khawaja, Joe Burns, Nathan Lyon, Michel Marsh, Mitchell Starc and Adam Voges.

This series is played for the Murali-Warne Trophy. Both these players were terrific spinners for their respective countries and it is nice to have their names associated with Test cricket. Going down memory lane, Muralitharan had his wicket taking days, but there were times when he was smashed around the ground by a batsman like Navjot Sidhu. But the off-spinner always returned to claim the wicket of most attacking batsmen because he kept a cool head and exercised great patience. These are qualities that the present Sri Lankan cricketers need to nurture.

Australia has struggled whenever touring countries in the sub-continent. Given the turning pitches in Sri Lanka, this series will be keenly contested to the very end.