Nearly a couple of years ago, at Durban, Kusal Perera conjured one of the greatest Test innings ever seen as Sri Lanka completed a remarkable turnaround. In the process, the Lankan Lions got the better of the Proteas by a solitary wicket – a victory that didn’t just send shockwaves throughout the cricketing fraternity, but also signaled a prospective rechristening of Sri Lanka as a global force.
A few days later, the Asian outfit again dug deep into their reserves and unfurled an equally spectacular win, meaning that they outwitted the Proteas 2-0 on the latter’s home patch.
Thus, at that juncture, there was palpable optimism that Sri Lanka had started delivering on the promise that existed in their ranks. Additionally, it led several to believe that they were finally reaping the rewards of placing extraordinary emphasis on their youngsters.
Post that though, Sri Lanka have won a grand total of 3 Tests, in 8 attempts, with two of those coming against Zimbabwe. And, with all due respect to the African nation, currently, they don’t particularly embody the ‘dark horse’ tag that defined them at the turn of the century.
Consequently, when Sri Lanka rocked up on South African shores a month ago, plenty were intrigued to see what the Islanders could actually bring to the fore. More tellingly, the series against the Proteas was potentially viewed as a barometer to measure how far Sri Lanka had traversed, since that assignment in 2019.
Unfortunately, though, over the course of two one-sided encounters, Sri Lanka have highlighted that that conquest might well have been a false dawn. To put things bluntly, it could also have been an aberration, in times of insipid and erratic performances on the international front.
In the 2021 rubber against South Africa, Sri Lanka have looked clueless and have been lackadaisical – something that is a damning assessment for a side that has seldom been guilty of being bereft of concepts.
Over the years, Sri Lanka have been pioneers in introducing new ideas to cricket, whether it be maximizing the field restrictions in white-ball cricket, or packing their side with a variety of spinners to optimize the conditions.
Yet, recently, Sri Lanka seem to have gotten stuck in the quicksand. Contextually, they find themselves at a crossroad, wherein they aren’t sure of the brand of cricket they want to play, let alone be in a position to stamp their mark on the international circuit.
Against South Africa, in both Tests, Sri Lanka’s batsmen were guilty of being a tad too loose outside off stump. Though there might have been a plan to score briskly and put the Proteas under pressure, some of the shots the tourists pulled out bordered on absurdity.
More worryingly though, there also seemed a pattern of the batsmen thrilling the audiences with an audacious shot, before playing an equally poor stroke. In the process, there were plenty of shots that made the highlight reel, but not a lot of those actually helped Sri Lanka get anywhere close to safety.
In fact, one might not be wrong to point out that the Islanders might also be feeling the effects of T20 cricket, for most of their batsmen bat like millionaires, even in situations when stinginess and being frugal might’ve been more fruitful.
Most tellingly, Sri Lanka, for the first time in their fabled history, find themselves in a predicament where the players they’ve invested in, have just not produced the requisite returns. And, perhaps, that is where the crux of the problem lies.
Sri Lanka have struggled in the batting department
Lahiru Thirimanne, once touted as the next ‘Kumar Sangakkara’, averages 22.64, despite having played more than 30 Tests. Kusal Perera, the hero of Sri Lanka’s previous South African adventure, fares a tad better, averaging 31.68 in 19 Tests. Yet, that is not nearly enough for a top-quality opener.
The ailments continue lower down the order too, rather unfortunately. Kusal Mendis has often evoked memories of Mahela Jayawardene, while batting. And, to be fair to the former, he has, at times, looked just as elegant and classy. However, across 45 games, he only averages a tick over 36.
Similarly, Dhananjaya de Silva has middling statistics in Test cricket, although he has the luxury of calling upon his bowling to contribute to the side. Dimuth Karunaratne - the Sri Lankan skipper, also averages only 36.66 in Test cricket, despite him being heralded as one of the Islanders' bright batting sparks.
Among the aforementioned, the one that stands out, is Dinesh Chandimal, who averages more than 40 in Test cricket. Having said that though, if Sri Lanka are getting excited about just one of their batsmen boasting an average in excess of 40, one reckons they might have larger issues to contend with.
In fact, South Africa, who are experiencing a bit of a downward spiral themselves, only have one batsman (Faf du Plessis) with numbers that breach the 40-run barrier.
On the other hand, teams that possess excellent Test batting units, namely Australia, India and New Zealand, have at least, more than three batsmen above the aforementioned mark. Unsurprisingly, they are three of the premier outfits across the globe.
Thus, if a side has to be successful in red-ball cricket, it is imperative that it has a few batsmen capable of tiding over prospective storms. Furthermore, the weight of runs then allows the bowlers to put the opposition under strife, and fashion victories.
Unfortunately for Sri Lanka though, their bowling attack seems to be as much of a concern as their batting.
Much like the batsmen, the bowlers have also felt the double-edged sword of the trials and tribulations of T20 cricket. Subsequently, none of the current bowlers Sri Lanka have, seem capable of landing the ball on a dime, for large stretches.
In fact, that propensity was laid bare in the opening half of South Africa’s 1st innings at Johannesburg. Despite there being some assistance from the surface, Sri Lanka failed to put the batsman under any sort of collective pressure, often releasing it with a string of bad balls.
To put things into further perspective, it wasn’t until Dasun Shanaka was brought on before Lunch, that Sri Lanka began bowling good lines and lengths. Prior to that, each decent delivery was followed up by a couple of wayward ones, meaning that South Africa never felt the need to take the game to the opposition, for Sri Lanka handed it to them on a platter.
However, once Sri Lanka began hitting their straps, they seemed a rejuvenated outfit, with Vishwa Fernando wreaking havoc. In turn, that cast light on the talent they possess, while also personifying the primary ailment plaguing them – consistency.
Thus, at this point, it seems that Sri Lanka might have to go back to the drawing board and chalk out a plan that could sustain them, in the years to come. There is no doubt that the Islanders have cricketers with potential. The discrepancy though, lies in the nation and the individuals’ ability to harness it.
For a fact, it might not be as easy to ask budding young players to abandon the glitz and glamour of T20 cricket and mould themselves to survive the rigours of Test cricket. But that might be something that needs to be forced upon them, for, rather ironically, Sri Lanka aren’t as much of a threat in white-ball formats too.
There are plenty of quandaries surrounding Sri Lankan cricket and each seems as perplexing as the previous one. Yet, under such circumstances, that is the least they should expect, considering they’re in the thick of a transitionary period.
The alarming aspect though, might be that Sri Lanka have been undergoing that particular phase for quite a while now. And, unless something drastic happens, they look primed to continue on that slippery slope.
In fact, as long as they keep prolonging the changes that need to be implemented, they’ll only keep reiterating that the series triumphs, such as the one against the Proteas in South Africa in 2019, was an anomaly.Published 05 Jan 2021, 19:25 IST