Sri Lanka old guard patched up for one glorious last stand

They might have just been turned over by Australia and young talent is in short supply, but, writes Peter Roebuck, they still have the pedigree to put England to the sword
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sri Lanka barely survived their trip Down Under and head for home bearing the scars of battle. As a rule, teams emerge stronger and wiser from their brutal antipodean experience. However, Mahela Jayawardene and his mostly merry men completed their brief assignment this week in a state easily mistaken for disarray. Australia have not broken them but weaknesses have been exposed and the younger players especially left with their reputations in tatters. On the other hand, several senior men performed admirably. Unfortunately one of them – Marvan Atapattu – has grumpily retired and others may be put out to pasture. A generation of outstanding Sri Lankan cricketers has been lost and replacements are hard to find in an impoverished and war-ravaged country.

Of course, the expedition was doomed before it began, a victim of crass planning and the widespread disrespect shown for the power of the Australians. It is absurd to arrive on the harsh continent a fortnight before a Test series, play a couple of cowardly matches against bemused locals eager for a proper "stoush" (fight) and then expect to stand firm against an overwhelming host. England made the same mistake last year and suffered the consequences. Although the grog did not help, their defeat owed more to poor preparation than the captain's fondness for a drink. India have given themselves a week to prepare for their Test series starting on Boxing Day and might as well stay at home.

Sri Lanka played a somewhat uneven game. Their tried and trusted batsmen were superb and everyone else was abysmal. Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara are batsmen of the highest calibre and proved it with mighty innings in the second Test in Hobart. They are also friends and spent several evenings together, sampling the local variations on cod and chips. Like many presentable types, Jayawardene has been patronised. But he has a flawless technique and sets an example as a leader. Erudite, lucid, fearless and competitive, Sangakkara counts among the most impressive men to play the game.

Among the other elders, Sanath Jayasuriya can still club the ball around but starts uneasily against swing and spin. He retracted his decision to retire from Test cricket last year to extend the career of a great character, an uncorrupted man who has played with his heart.

Atapattu batted gravely in Australia but talked colourfully, condemning the selectors as "muppets". He has not forgiven them for sacking him as captain and now appears more interested in playing grade cricket for the St George Club in Sydney.

Chaminda Vaas has likewise been replaced by lesser men but injuries may prompt a recall. Tellingly he averages 40 with bat and ball in his last 10 matches. Although no longer indispensable, he usually contributes something and should not have been dropped.

Muttiah Muralitharan is the last and most crucial of the old guard. He had a poor series, taking four wickets at 100 apiece. But he did not bowl a single ball to a tailender and the Australians played him exceptionally well. Raised to read from the hand, most of the home batsmen countered him comfortably and the right-handers often used their feet to subdue his spin. Unable to turn his off-break as much these days, Murali relies ever more on deception. English batsmen find him harder to read than a Bulgarian novel and therefore may struggle. Murali will be happier bowling on dustier decks and in front of loyal supporters. Certainly, he can be expected to break Shane Warne's Test wicket record in the first match, thereby ending the occupation of a guileful but dissembling and graceless contemporary. No one in their right mind any longer frets about his action.

Sri Lanka have lent heavily on these veterans to sustain their challenge. Alas the newcomers look callow. Michael Vandort is a gangling left-hander with plenty of determination but a narrow range of shots. Chamara Silva produced flashes of brilliance but lacks weight of mind. His running between the wickets was particularly fraught.

That his cricket veers between youthful inspiration and fourth-form howlers tells a tale. School cricket attracts large crowds in Sri Lanka and even six-a-side tournaments are breathlessly reported in the media. It is easy to become a schoolboy hero and tempting to remain forever trapped there. In many respects life is harder after school on the island and headmasters often find themselves persuading students to leave. Inevitably the outlook is reflected in the cricket, with its curious mixture of naivety and opportunism.

None of the younger Sri Lankan batsmen impressed in Australia and England should be able to coax them into error. None of the new breed has played county cricket, working hard as responsible professionals. The part county cricket has played in the rise of the great West Indian and Australian teams cannot be ignored. Serving a county for a few summers gives gifted but underexposed players time to mature and seasoned campaigners a chance to push their cases.

Sri Lanka's bowling was toothless. Australians found it hard to understand the faith shown in Dilhara Fernando, a lumbering paceman built along the lines of Sarfraz Nawaz but lacking his resources. According to Trevor Bayliss, Sri Lanka's likeable but unproven coach, the hefty paceman was nursing a sore ankle but has vowed to play through the pain against England. Farveez Maharoof looked more threatening until he suffered stress fractures in a foot. More use might have been made of Vaas and Jayasuriya, the second- and third-highest wicket takers Sri Lanka has produced. Vaas has matured into an old-fashioned length bowler who can turn his hand to jerky cutters.

Sri Lanka will need to reconstruct. Silva and Fernando ought to be dropped and Atapattu has called in the receivers. Asantha de Mel, a much maligned chairman of selectors, Bayliss and Jayawardene must rally their men. It is a stiff task but not impossible. Sri Lanka are a different proposition in their own backyard. Nor can any side including Murali, Sangakkara, Jayawardene and Jayasuriya be taken lightly. And England are not Australia.

Past masters who look to have the future under control

Australia have been the benchmark for 15 years and show little sign of losing focus. Periodically other teams have challenged but none has stayed the course. Usually the surge is caused by the coming together of a group of outstanding players at the peak of their powers, and it peters out as players fade or laziness takes hold. Australia have never been beaten by a superior system.

Predictions that the loss of the Ashes signalled the beginning of the end proved to be as wide of the mark as Devon Malcolm's worst delivery. Australia took defeat in their stride, absorbed its lessons, offered terms to England's bowling coach and bounced back. Troy Cooley (right) has played his part in lifting the current Australian outfit.

Lord's was mad to let him go. Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson have been reverse swinging dangerously and Andrew Symonds has been a handful. Stuart MacGill has been wayward, but he has had a dicky knee.

Determined not to slump after losing two great bowl-ers, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, the Australians prepared particularly hard for this series. Sri Lanka were over-powered by purposeful batting and resourceful bowling.

Now the Aussies are worried about poor crowds, and slumping ratings caused by one-sided contests against underdone opponents. John Buchanan, the former Australia coach, has even suggested a franchise system, whereby marginal players can be distributed among weaker nations. Some will dismiss his proposal as another example of Australian arrogance. Others will sense a yearning for a contest.

The lesson is clear. Australia are not coming back to the field, not yet anyhow. The onus is on the chasing pack to catch up.