Time to stand up and be counted

In Sri Lanka by Bill Ricquier

Sri Lanka tend not to travel well. That is a generalisation of course, and like most generalisations, is a little harsh, but , on the whole, it is difficult to argue with the facts.

This predominantly young and always interesting side is going through a re-building phase at the moment. Great heart was taken earlier this year from the visit to Sri Lanka of one of the top-ranked Test sides, Australia. Sri Lanka trounced them , winning the series three-nil. Yet, on six visits Down Under, Sri Lanka have yet to win a single Test there.

Logistics have not always treated them kindly. England initially deemed them unworthy of more than a single game when Sri Lanka toured. . That last happened in 1998 when Muttiah Muralitharan secured a famous victory at The Oval. Since then Sri Lanka have always been invited to play three Tests, but usually at the start of the season when it is often ( relatively) wet and cold. Hence the Sri Lankans’ underwhelming performance this summer, although two years ago Angelo Mathew’s team tasted success, their last series victory overseas against a ” leading” Test side.

As regards India, the position is odd. Sri Lanka have only toured there twice since 1997-98, so great players such as Mahela Jayawardane and Kumar Sangakkara had very limited opportunities to parade their skills there.

Earlier this month the Sri Lankan squad arrived in South Africa to play three Tests, three T20 internationals and five one- day internationals.

As far as the Tests are concerned , the omens are not especially good. In Sri Lanka the home side have usually given a very good account of themselves. After all, it was against South Africa in 2006 that Jayawardene and Sangakkara put on 624 for the third wicket in Colombo. (Flat track bullies? Well, South Africa batted first and Muralitharan took four for 41. When they tried again he took six more.)

In South Africa though, on their five previous visits, Sri Lanka have won just one Test. This was on their last visit , in 2011-12. There were a number of encouraging features to it. It was the Boxing Day Test, in Durban , the second of the series, so it was not a dead rubber ( though the hosts won the series two- one). And it was a convincing victory , by 208 runs.

Also , in Sri Lanka’s first innings , critical support was provided to veteran centurion Thilan Samaraweera by the twenty- two year- old debutant Dinesh Chandimal, who made a determined 58. And the redoubtable Rangana Herath took nine wickets in the match.

( how often has he done that…?)

Incidentally it was only Sri Lanka’s eighth victory in which Muralitharan had not participated.

The odds must be against Sri Lanka springing a surprise this time round. But there are certainly reasons to be optimistic. Fast bowlers Dushmantha Chameera and Nuwan Pradeep have returned from injury and if they can stay fit , ought to make an impact. Herath and off- spinner Dilruwan Perera , who troubled all the Australian batsmen in the recent series, are likely to present the main bowling threat..

But it is the younger batsmen around whom there is most interest. In the recent series against Australia and Zimbabe , Dhananjaya de Silva, an off- spinning all rounder – well , a batsman who bowls, really – made a big impression with significant contributions in the middle order.

Kaushal Silva has had a stop start career but he is now showing signs of having finally arrived. He made a significant hundred in the third Test against Australia, toughing it out after a series of low scores. Just as impressive, if not more so, was his 79 earlier in the year in the third Test against England at Lord’s in challenging conditions. It is always intriguing to watch Silva because of his obsessive routine of equipment arranging and muscle flexing before each ball. He is a determined and methodical batsman who ought to prosper as his confidence grows.

And then there is Kusal Mendis. Still only twenty one, he is the one on whom many Sri Lankans’ hopes rest. He also shone in England; indeed in the two Tests at Headibgley and Chester – Le – Street he, together with Chandimal, seemed in a different class to the others. He followed that with his astonishing 176 against Australia at Pallekele; only one other player, Steve Smith, passed fifty in the match. Mendis oozes talent. Talent alone isn’t enough – the demise , for the time being at least – of Lahiru Thirimanne shows that. Mendis has got something more in the way of maturity and character.

If Sri Lanka are to make an impact in South Africa there will have to be a significant contribution from the old guard, Mathews, Chandimal – still only twenty seven – and Herath. But there are signs that the transitional phase that inevitably followed the departures of Jayawardene and Sangakkara may be coming to an end.

Bill Ricquier., 17/12/2016

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