My thoughts on the Sri Lanka-Australia series

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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.

Comments

Sunny's picture

I think you're being a bit pessimistic here. Yes, we were soundly beaten in the limited overs formats but since we have so good in them, I'm sure we will bounce back. Forming a good test team is harder than forming a good limited overs team: those test wins mean more than winning the LO matches.

As for the test series, I would have to disagree with you. Yes, Australia batted pretty poorly but we definitely played well to win it. Did you think Australia "did not have the specialist skills to succeed on turning subcontinental pitches"? Or when they had us at 26-5 on the first day of the third test? Or when they were 267-1 I respond to our first innings of 350-odd? Yes, Australia batted badly but we definitely had to play well to win. Are you going to say the centuries made by Kusal Mendis, Chandimal, Dhananjaya and Kaushal Silva were just because Australia didn't play well?

As for the pitches, only Galle can be classed as a raging turner. And it wasn't even that bad, considering last time Australia played there (in 2011) it was rated as poor by the ICC. At Pallekelle, both team batted poorly in the first innings, and Allan Border himself said they should both scored 300+ on a pitch like that. At the SSC, 1200+ runs were scored there, with 3 scores of 340+. So yeah X definitely raging turners right?

Regarding FC cricket, I do have to agree that spinners are dominating the wicket taking lists. But that doesn't mean that every match is a low scoring encounter. Checking the stats, there were 26 scores of 400 or more, with 11 of those being 500+. As for building an innings, there were 12 instances of innings which lasted 250 balls or more, with Roshen Silva's 225* off 361 balls being a good example or Angeo Jayasinghe's 141 off 304 balls. isolated examples yes, but they do show that those who apply themselves can score and stay at the crease.

Stormy's picture
Member since:
15 January 2011
Last activity:
1 day 11 hours

Interesting read and I was actually agreeing the write till I read @Sunny's equally interesting response. I think we all agree our strength is spin and thus preparing spin based tracks and beating visiting teams is the modus operandi. The same way we don't rock up at the MCG and expect to see a turner. Well England and SA made that mistake once and were soundly beaten at the Oval and Durban and we don't really expect them to make the mistake again and neither should we.

I thought the test series was seriously entertaining cricket with wild swings in the game seldom seen anywhere else. It was punctuated by gems from two the young Kusal and Dhana with Starc storming Aus back with brilliant fast bowling to remind that the conditions offered plenty for the skillful fast merchant.

The one day series basically highlighted what we already knew since the last WC (both 50 over and t20). We have lost our mojo big time here and it was disappointing we didn't play new talent in the limited over format. Dasun and Sandakan warmed the bench while Thisera, Senenayeka and Prasanna showed us what the problem has been with our bowling in recent times.

As the write points out the problem is with our domestic cricket and this needs to addressed fast and now.

Anonymous's picture

Here I'm commenting on a somewhat different issue though relevant to our bowling. When it comes to fast bowling the two preety most important things are speed & height of the bowler. Chameera Pradeep & Prasad can be grouped in the first & in the second to my knowledge we've Binara F'do & Kasun Rajitha.Of course they both lack pace so becomes easy prey so why not Ramanayake or Vass specially train them to get some control & swing etc so they can make use of their heights touring abroad. Glen Mcgrath was similar with no pace but wily tricks.It is not only we should go speed but make use these two (similar ones) specially.

N.M.M's picture
Member since:
8 May 2016
Last activity:
16 weeks 1 day

Agree with @sunny... Too pessimistic .. We are all slightly disappointed (Understandably) , but important sure if before the Australia series if anyone said Sl will be whitewashed in all formats and draw the best thing to hope, I (Many others as well) would not have disagreed much... We simply didn't expect such good performances( they were good, no doubts at all) from our highly "unskilled" team... Just very thankful we are on the way up... No shame in being beaten by the no1 ranked team... And non of the pitches were dustbowls except the first odi... That was horrible and it was not an advantage for us at all... This is our soil, this is the way our pitches play and quality players perform (Pacemen, spinners or batsmen).. No need to be ashamed at all (this was not Nagpur by any means)... I for my part believe we have the players to make the best team we ever had in all formats... Just the selections have to be good and consistent.. I mean I've seen sanga and mahela , and im seeing mendis and desilva... Something tells me the latter two are much more skilled and will go farther than the former two... We got to believe in our players.. Luck will turn one day and then we are gonna show to the world what we are made of!!!

Suren1998's picture
Member since:
18 February 2015
Last activity:
1 day 22 hours

I really think our problem is that we are not producing good cricketers regularly, and the blame must go to our domestic structure. Look at the indian team for example, Lokesh Rahul scored a hundred in his ODI debut and also in a T20I. I think he is the best batsman in the team after kohli. Also Jasprit Bumrah is a fantastic fast bowler for their team. I dont think Sri lanka will ever produce cricketers like them at their same age. We do get good players for Sri Lanka but only after years of international experience wheras other teams get good players from day 1 after years of domestic experience.

Sunny's picture

@Suren1998 Kusal Mendis has already played a great innings, and he's 21. Dhananjaya made an instant impact in his debut series. Aponso took 4 wickets in his second international game, and didn't concede a single boundary till his third. Chameera took 4 wickets in debut, and took 9 wickets in his fourth test. India might produce a larger number of talented players, but take into account the difference between the two populations, I'd say SL creates as many talented playesr per 100,000 people.

Onlinepoet2000's picture
Member since:
19 December 2013
Last activity:
1 year 42 weeks

Thank you for all your comments. I can see that opinion is divided amongst us Sri Lankan fans. But as adults we can all agree to disagree, can’t we?

Sunny, I have to respectfully disagree with what you said. I still maintain that Australia does not have the necessary skills to survive on the subcontinent. They were thrashed 4-0 by India not too long ago despite being one of the stop sides going around. In the 80s or even 90s none of the top ranked teams suffered humiliating whitewashes away from home. So it just goes to show that, barring Steven Smith, no one in the current Australian side can deal with the vagaries of spin bowling. The reason Australia had us at 26-5 was because of some poor batting from us on a somewhat benign pitch. No Test team should find itself at 26-5, that’s just a village cricket score. The reason the Aussies then raced to 267-1 was because our bowlers couldn’t find a breakthrough on the benign SSC pitch. If I’m honest, most Test teams don’t find themselves at the receiving end of such a score either, especially at home. So, if not for the salvaging performances of some of our newer players we’d have received a thrashing in the Tests too.

This leads me to my next point. Yes, some of our younger players definitely stepped up but unlike you, Sunny, I wouldn’t hastily proclaim them to be the next great batsman or bowler. Remember Ajantha Mendis and how he fizzed out. All our greats took time to settle at international level. So I’ll be more reassured when someone takes time to slowly but surely find his feet. Like they say one swallow does not a summer make.

You also kindly gave us stats from the most recent domestic season. A cut-off of 250 balls faced is a rather arbitrary (and low-ish) figure. Infact, by international standards where most batsmen have a strike rate of only 40-50% this would only translate to an innings of 100-125 runs, hardly a big hundred. And therein lies my point, even if we go by your arbitrary 250 ball cut-off score there were only 12 innings that lasted 250 balls or more. If batsmen cannot make big hundreds in domestic cricket regularly how can they be expected to score big hundreds in international cricket. It's not fair on them.

Also, grinding out a big hundred in a raging turner bunsen burner against an army of spinners is very different to grinding out big innings’ against four relentless fast bowlers on a pitch with pace and bounce, something our local batsmen are unaccustomed to. Facing four menacing pacemen on a good bowling pitch is a completely different ball game Sunny, the skills are not as transferable as you think, and its akin to expecting a maths teacher to do a good job teaching English. My point here being, the only way to properly prepare future players for the rigors of international cricket is to try and emulate it in domestic cricket in the first place. If that means we prepare pitches with pace and bounce or sometimes raging turners or even benign highways then so be it. To me that's the best way forward to produce a decent set of fast bowlers and batsmen who can deal with both pace and spin so they would know what to expect at international level and the transition will not be as prolonged, or as painful.

NMM, you called me pessimistic but expecting a “draw to be the best thing to hope” shows how pessimistic you are. I would not settle for a draw. I would not settle for mediocrity. I need more from this current Sri Lankan team. I know what we were capable of as a team with Murali, Vaas, Aravinda, Arjuna, Sanga and Mahela around and I want the current crop to rise to the challenge. I wouldn’t expect a Sri Lankan team to be No.1 in all three formats, that’ll be delusional. But a third place ranking in all 3 formats is something we are capable of achieving and something we should aiming for.

Suren, that’s because the gulf between our domestic and international cricket is massive.

Stormy, entertaining cricket yes, and I did enjoy the series greatly but I’m concerned about our future.

(Last edited by Onlinepoet2000 on September 17, 2016 - 09:11)
N.M.M's picture
Member since:
8 May 2016
Last activity:
16 weeks 1 day

@onlinepoet2000 i understand your opinion but i want to point out draw was the best hope BEFORE the series.. England was tough but our performances were horrible and we never expected such a GOOD performance vs aussies .. I'm not at all pessimistic.. I'm a cricket lover and watched every bit of the series even when i knew we are gonna lose.. Yes, winning is a big part of the game but the game in itself is the bigger picture.. I don't mind our team losing as long as we fight till the end.. The current batch of players can only get better.. Yes, we may struggle a lot in the future in alien conditions but i think we have the right personnel to take us forward.. Besides, I don't believe us being no 1 ranked in all formats is a"highly delusion" at all.. BUT I can't answer on behalf of the selectors.. If they chose to bench the "right personnel " , then may god help us!!

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