Sri Lanka rely on quickie with a wicket streak

First Test: Muralitharan's injury a blow for tourists but there is always Vaas to keep England's batsmen on their toes

Stephen Brenkley
Sunday 23 March 2014 05:47
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Chaminda Vaas is Sri Lanka's other bowler. That is to say, he is not Muttiah Muralitharan, but batsmen had better watch out anyway. In the understandable rush to praise the great spinner and run down his team's chances without him this summer, there is a temptation to overlook anybody else in the side who turns their arm over.

As far as Vaas is concerned, England should avoid this like Murali's wrong 'un. To the home side, he should equate to vastly dangerous. They should be on their guard, not only thinking on their feet but moving them adeptly too.

Otherwise, the left-arm swing bowler will have them pinned to the crease and on the way back long, long before you can say Warnakulasuriya Patabendige Ushantha Joseph Chaminda Vaas.

For sure, the man with the most initials in the game will struggle to contain Nasser Hussain's team alone but his late movement allied to a pace sufficient to keep the batsman honest has assumed lethal proportions lately. In the space of a few days last winter he took 14 wickets in a Test match, and four days later had a return of 8 for 19, the best figures in a one-day international. Sometime during the First Test match at Lord's he should collect the four wickets he needs to become the first Sri Lanka fast bowler to reach 200 in Tests. Do not entirely rule out the first morning.

Vaas and Murali have become one of the most potent combinations in the game's history. Their unlikely partnership and some resplendent top-order batting has been responsible for Sri Lanka's nine consecutive Test victories. The edge that the faster, junior partner will gain by operating in English conditions suggests that he will reach a career peak this summer. Like all his colleagues, Vaas is in thrall to Murali but insistent that they can win this series without him, should his injured left shoulder refuse to fully respond to treatment.

"We don't have him but everybody is talking about Murali, Murali, Murali. But we have to try to play without him and show that without Murali we can do something. Especially in England, we can do this with our young fast bowlers if we play to our merits."

So far, there is no sure sign that Sri Lanka's seamers will be up to the task. Reared on different pitches they are finding trouble adjusting and the early suspicion – unless they are keeping their powder dry and their swing concealed – is that they might not be up to it. But that does not apply to Vaas.

Sri Lanka's coach, Dav Whatmore, said: "We have played some exceptionally good cricket, that's the part people are glossing over. Quite rightly, you're focusing on Murali but part of the reason the team have won nine games is that they amassed big totals. Another part is that Vaas not only knocked over a couple with the new ball but he came back superbly with the older ball.

"If he hadn't we'd have been found wanting. Against the West Indies, Brian Lara accounted for Murali beautifully and it wasn't until Vaas came in with a couple of big spells that we had the upper hand and that was the difference really." Vaas, then, has exhibited his skills on less helpful surfaces than he might find in England in the next three months. He is aware that pitches back home are prepared for Murali's benefit and he is a willing, humble accomplice. But one who knows his own worth.

"Murali is the key bowler and that is why we would always prepare our pitches in his favour. Any team who has a bowler that good would do the same. But even in those conditions I have learned to bowl very well. Now I have to get used to it here, change length."

Sri Lanka's run of Test victories is the third best sequence after Australia's 16 and the West Indies' 11 and has entailed taking 180 wickets. Murali has captured 83 of those but Vaas has 47. These figures represent the pinnacle of their power they have formed in a dual swing-spin spearhead since Vaas made a wicketless debut at Kandy in 1994.

Since then, Sri Lanka's total of wickets taken is 1,030 of which Murali has 360 and Vaas 196, or 54 per cent between them. Considering that for part of that period Vaas was struggling to overcome a severe back injury which forced him to miss eight matches – including the epic 10-wicket victory over England in 1998 – that is an astonishing return.

Vaas has had to work hard to regain full fitness and become an integral part of both Sri Lankan sides. His batting has come on too, so that he is all-but a proper all-rounder. "My fitness has been so important, gymning three times a week, bowling, running. Being a fast bowler you have to sacrifice a lot." Minus Murali, he claims to be relaxed. He looks it, sounds it, a man who knows the station he has reached in his bowling life at 28.

"I was speaking to Wasim Akram as left-arm bowler to left-arm bowler two or three years ago and he told me then that 27 and 28 would be the good years to perform. So I have been doing really well. I don't feel under pressure, I try my best and just smile and enjoy myself. I know I must bowl well but all our other bowlers have to as well."

Vaas can move the ball both ways in the air but the delivery that really hurts is the reverse swinger that darts in at the last moment. In the home series against England early in 2001 he established a grip on Michael Atherton of Glenn McGrath proportions. He sent back the England opener five times in six innings, thrice leg before, and left him wondering whether it was bending in or straightening.

Last winter, Vaas approached his ideal, as if to ensure that Wasim was right. There were two exemplary performances. As November moved into December, Sri Lanka were seeking a 3-0 whitewash against the West Indies. The trouble was that Lara looked to have the measure of Muralitharan. Indeed, he scored 221 and 130 in the match but could not ultimately repel Vaas who took seven wickets in each innings, eight of them leg before.

A few days later he produced a freak performance in a one-dayer against Zimbabwe, the only man to take eight wickets. The chaos in Zimbabwe's ranks began with the first ball as they proved completely inept at coping with his in-duckers. Indeed, he was on course for 10 before a certain spinner was whistled up and took two wickets in his first over to despatch Zimbabwe for 38.

"It was my wife's birthday and I wanted to get a present for her," Vaas said. "I asked her what she wanted and she said it would be nice if I could get five wickets for her, so I just went on and took eight. I got my rhythm and everything right from the first ball."

The present story is not apocryphal. Vaas, like so many in his side, is a religious man who prays daily, in his case as a Catholic. One of his names, he said, is a Christian name, two are family names and the others are just names that are given to Sri Lankan boys. He is known as Chaminda at home but not to cricketers, including his team-mates. "They call me Vaas because it is easy." Facing him, however, might prove slightly more complex than pronouncing any of his other names.

Test of time: Sri Lanka's record in England

1984. Lord's
Sri Lanka 471-7d and 294-7d
England 370
Match drawn

England had just been mauled 5-0 by the rampant West Indies but if they expected an easier time against the Test new boys they were to be sadly mistaken. Inviting Sri Lanka to bat in only their 12th Test proved a disastrous decision by captain David Gower. Stylish orthodox opening batsman Sidath Wettimuny made 190 in 10 hours 42 minutes, the highest by any visiting player in his first Test in England, the captain, Duleep Mendis, hit a hundred from 112 balls (and was six runs short of a second-innings century). England, weary and inefficient, were booed on the third day for an inexcusably tedious display.

1988. Lord's
Sri Lanka 194 and 331
England 429 and 100-3
England won by 7 wickets

With four new caps, England ended a run of 18 matches without a win. From the moment Sri Lanka were 63 for 6 on the first morning the result was predictable, but the tourists fought back valiantly. The game went to the fifth day. Of England's debutants, Jack Russell made 94 as nightwatchman, Kim Barnett scored an attractive 66 and Phil Newport took seven wickets to be man of the match (he played only two more Tests). Duleep Mendis and Arjuna Ranatunga scored second-innings runs, Ravi Ratnayake had a solid all-round performance – but Sri Lanka were suffering from being given too few Tests.

1991. Lord's
England 282 and 364-3d
Sri Lanka 224 and 285
England won by 137 runs

One Alec Stewart made his maiden Test hundred in an England first innings in which the next highest score was 42. This was one of the early examples of the dilemma Stewart presents: he was retained as a batsman having been asked to keep wicket in the previous Test. Ravi Ratnayake, with 5 for 69 and 52 not out, again produced a splendid all-round effort but opener Graham Gooch's scintillating 174, his sixth hundred in a Test match at Lord's, gave England a substantial lead. Only a tiro batsman called Sanath Jayasuriya, who struck 66 in 70 balls, gave Sri Lanka any glimpse of their target.

1998. The Oval
England 445 and 181
Sri Lanka 591 and 37-0
Sri Lanka won by 10 wickets

Anybody fancy a go at the three-card trick? How they laughed when Arjuna Ranatunga put England in only for the home side to amass a huge total, with Graeme Hick and John Crawley posting centuries. But even then some faint outlines had begun to appear on the wall with Murali taking seven wickets in 59 patient overs. Sri Lanka batted with verve, adding 367 runs on the third day as Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva produced a display to make fireworks look dull. Murali did the rest with a 9 for 65 in England's second innings, prompting a whinge about his action from their coach, David Lloyd.

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