Murali leaves hole as tourists start next era short of bowling options

New captain Dilshan leads a team surprisingly reliant on pace and still without a win since talisman's exit
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The Independent Online

In five Test matches since the greatest international wicket-taker of all time retired, Sri Lanka have yet to win. Says it all doesn't it? Without Muttiah Muralitharan and his guaranteed six wickets a match (there were 10 in 22 of them) they are sailing without a paddle.

Those figures are slightly misleading. True, Sri Lanka have not won a Test since Murali had Pragyan Ojha caught at slip by Mahela Jayawardene last July, but they have lost only one with three of the draws badly rain affected. Yet it remains the 800-wicket question and one which the new captain, Tillakaratne Dilshan, is already well versed in answering.

"We can't find another Murali, he's a very special guy," said Dilshan yesterday. "But we have two other young off-spinners in Ajantha Mendis and Suraj Randiv and if we can get the best out of them that will be good for our future."

But neither Mendis nor Randiv, off-spinners both, have made the squad for the first Test match starting today. Mendis seemed the answer to Sri Lanka's prayers for a Murali successor when he burst on to the scene with his carom ball three years ago. But the carom has become a carrot too easily devoured by batsmen lately. What was once a mystery has become all too predictable.

It is unthinkable that Sri Lanka would go into a Test match with a five-man attack, only one of which is a spinner. But that is what the tourists are proposing to do this morning.

They clearly have complete faith in their top five batsmen, both settled and prolific, and will entrust the pivotal No 6 spot to the wicketkeeper, Prasanna Jayawardene, who has two Test hundreds. The length of their tail would make a giraffe envious.

Rangana Herath, a left-arm spinner who has played 24 Test matches, will be their solitary slow bowling option. The quartet of quick bowlers may include Farveez Maharoof, who has been called into the squad as cover from Lancashire, because Nuwan Pradeep has been sent home with a knee injury and Dilhara Fernando is doubtful with a similar complaint.

Pradeep, who has a slinging action which is not quite as extreme as Lasith Malinga's, took four late wickets in the tourists' unexpected win against England Lions last Sunday, and Fernando took three in a marvellous burst. They would have been certainties in this attack, which is automatically further weakened.

For it is not only Murali who Sri Lanka are without but Chaminda Vaas, their left-arm paceman, and Malinga, respectively their second and third leading wicket-takers. There is nothing of real menace left to worry England and on a dry, slow Cardiff pitch getting out should be difficult. Sri Lanka have won their only two warm-up matches, against Middlesex and the Lions, the last after following on. They also drew their last series in England five years.

But this will be tough for them. They have played virtually all their Test cricket in the last four years on the subcontinent, where they do things differently. Cardiff has been dry recently like the rest of Britain but it will not yet equate to the SSC ground in Colombo.

For Dilshan it is the challenge of his cricketing life. At 34 he has replaced Kumar Sangakkara as captain. Sangakkara retired after the World Cup final in March, which Sri Lanka lost to India, and with his predecessor, Mahela Jayawardene, also still in the side, Dilshan will not be short of advice. He insists that he will not be afraid to ask for it.

So many of this Sri Lankan squad remain simply grateful to be playing cricket still that they genuinely believe they have nothing to fear. Seven of today's intended team were on the coach ambushed by gunmen on its way to the Gaddafi Stadium for a Test match two years ago.

Several had narrow escapes as the bullets flew but Thilan Samaraweera was hit on the inside of his thigh. An inch either way when it would have hit a nerve and he might have been paralysed. As it was, he resumed his career four months later. He has kept the offending bullet at his home as a permanent reminder.

"It was the worst day of my life," he said on "Those three minutes in the bus will stay with me forever. But it's all in the past now and thankfully I am here to tell the tale.

"I feel that it's a lucky bullet as if it had hit the bone I would never have played cricket again and if it had hit a nerve then the doctors said that I would have been paralysed."

Batting heavyweights

They may be light on bowling experience but Sri Lanka's top five batsmen are pretty special as their averages attest.

T M Dilshan

Test average 42.44; Highest score 168

Attacking all-rounder is in good form.

N T Paranavitana

Ave 37.03; HS 111

Tall left-hander has impressed so far.

K C Sangakkara

Ave 57.25; HS 287

Left-handed graceful batsman who is most dangerous with cut and pull shots.

M Jayawardene

Ave 53.82; HS 374

Former captain difficult to remove once set.

T T Samaraweera

Ave 54.25; HS 231

Righted-handed batsman's patience wears bowlers down.