Australia v Sri Lanka, 3rd Test, Sydney, 2nd day January 4, 2013

Sri Lanka's utilisation of Herath baffling

Despite being the leading wicket-taker in 2012, Rangana Herath has been repeatedly brought on rather late in the innings by Mahela Jayawardene, and the captain has not attacked enough with him

In Samuel Beckett's tragicomedy 'Waiting for Godot', the play's two protagonists await the arrival of a man named Godot, whom they feel they know and must arrive soon. In reality, neither has ever actually had much to do with Godot, and ultimately, he never comes. For large periods of day two in Sydney, Sri Lanka lingered for magic to materialise, but their passivity did not yield the results they required to become ascendant in the Test. It is a strategy they have persisted with in the last two months despite its failure to deliver a winning position, and at the SCG, Sri Lanka watched and waited until the game began to slip away.

Mahela Jayawardene's conservatism might have been understandable had it only applied to his wayward fast bowlers in the morning session. But while he kept the field up during David Warner's early salvo, his best bowler was fitted with an unflattering field upon introduction, when the scoring rate had already slowed. Rangana Herath had four men on the fence when he came on immediately after lunch; three on the left-hand batsman's leg side, and one at deep point. Unsurprisingly, Warner and Phillip Hughes were content to progress risk-free, taking particular joy in the 90-degree arc left vacant for their pushes, square on the off side. Sri Lanka effectively banked on the pair making a mistake, but when the error came in the 35th over, Australia were already well placed to take a sizeable first innings lead.

That Herath did not bowl in the first session was itself an odd act of inaction on Jayawardene's part. In the second innings in Hobart, Herath proved his ability to break through when Australia sought quick runs, yet when Warner and Hughes were doing exactly that in the first session, the leading wicket-taker of 2012 was deemed unnecessary. Even if he did not strike, Herath has been Sri Lanka's most dependable squeezer since he became a regular in the Test side, but Jayawardene did not stray from his game plan, no matter how ineffective his inexperienced pace attack was at stemming the flow of runs. If there is a queen in the battlements, what sense is it to pursue an advantage with a handful of pawns?

Even Tillakaratne Dilshan was tried before Herath finally saw the ball, and it had been so in Hobart as well, where Herath was the sixth to be bowled in both innings. In Melbourne, where Sri Lanka were defending a staggeringly small total, their match-winner came on when Australia had already moved to within 40 of the visitor's score.

"I had a little chat with Mahela about that, and it was a quite a tough call," coach Graham Ford said at the end of the day's play. "He really felt that the offspin would cause more of a problem with the left-handers at the crease, and he went with that option. I think it was very close to going with a double spin option in that session, but in the end, we decided to give the young seamers time to settle. They were nervous to start with, and Mahela felt that giving them a reasonable spell would get them into their work."

If it was really believed that Dilshan was more likely to take the wicket of a left-hand batsman than the man Jayawardene believes is the second-best bowler he has ever played with, the decision to leave Suraj Randiv out of the playing XI becomes a baffling one. Dilshan is better than your run-off-the-mill part-time tweaker perhaps, but he is no allrounder. And if Sri Lanka rate offspin so highly against left-hand batsmen, choosing their premier off-break bowler on a dry pitch is not far from a no-brainer against an opposition carrying five southpaws out of their top seven. Instead, both their second string seamers, who average above 55, were picked ahead of Randiv. Sri Lanka already trail Australia desperately in skill and mastery of the conditions. If they continue to give away ground tactically as well, another sound defeat may await them in the next three days.

Before the series, Mahela Jayawardene had hinted that Sri Lanka's plan of attack in Australia would hinge on parsimony and patience because they lacked bowlers capable of venom and verve. It was a fair strategy perhaps, and his assessment of his resources was not far wrong, but Sri Lanka's bowling situation has changed drastically. Jayawardene is now down to seam options number 4, 5 and 6, and his batting unit is only slightly less depleted. If there was ever a time to take a risk with a daring field or an outlandish innovation it is now, when his plight appears so dire. Sri Lanka will bemoan their poor fortune at having failed to send Michael Clarke back when he was trapped in front first ball, or grassed a catch off Matthew Wade at short leg, but it is Rangana Herath who created both chances, and by failing to give him every chance of breaking through, they allow the opposition to coast towards powerful positions.

Australia may not be the world's best team at present, but as even South Africa discovered, it still takes a special performance buttressed by a positive attitude to beat them on their own soil. In Waiting for Godot, Vladmir and Estragon remained eternally unfulfilled. If Sri Lanka's inertia continues into day three and the second innings, that maiden victory in Australia will remain a dream.

Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Roo on January 5, 2013, 4:34 GMT

    Its not only Andrew that has asked this question - every TV & radio commenter has brought up this subject throughout this series... Surely a very serious question that hasn't been answered by the team management - obviously something is amiss...

  • Raj on January 5, 2013, 3:33 GMT

    Mahela is over rated captain. If you look at the matches he has captained there are many he could have won if he had pushed a bit, but his attitude is always saving the game. In limited overs when opposition loosing wickets he doesn't go for killing by using his best bowlers, he ease the pressure on opposition by introducing second level bowlers, just for saving his best bowlers for death overs, those matches, either he lost the match or fight very hard during the death overs to win.

  • Sachit on January 5, 2013, 2:59 GMT

    I think Sri Lanka should have played either of Akhila Dananjaya or Ajantha Mendis in this series alongside Herath when they did not have that good pace attack to combat Australian batting line up. Aussies are vulnerable to quality spin but Sri Lankan think tank failed to dominate on this shortcoming of rivals.

  • Brenton on January 5, 2013, 1:11 GMT

    Sometimes captains can get a bit too tricky, keep it simple. Herath is by far the best bowler Sri Lanka have so bowl him early, bowl him often and attack with him. Simple.

  • Peter on January 4, 2013, 22:08 GMT

    Herath is the only bowler for Sri Lanka to play every test, so clearly he is now in the red zone and is at risk of injury. He probably ran an extra 4 metres in the last test than he should have so the management are weary of bowling him as he has an excrutiating run up that puts a lot of strain on his body hurling down bullets at 83.2 km/h. Or they're concerned that his bowling might be too good for the new keeper and they let too many byes go through, this the run rate dramatically increases.

  • Dummy4 on January 4, 2013, 19:26 GMT

    Yes, AF. this is commendable sports journalism, especially in the context of SL cricket, where asking questions from the high and mighty is not encouraged or could be a cause for fall in journalistic careers (refusal of interviews etc;).

    It's not enough Ford, the coach, giving "spin" in his answers ("I think it was very close to going with a double spin option in that session") to these valid questions on cricketing strategy, specially considering this is, perhaps, the only area (strategy on the cricket field) that is beyond the (stinking) touch of the dirty sport politics that continue to plague SLC.

  • Viraj on January 4, 2013, 14:26 GMT

    I do not think it was right on Mahela to state in public that our attack was weaker than aussies . It may be true , but I do not know how such staments would motivate a team when the leader him self concedes before the battle begun. Look at the military , would a general tell his soldiers that his men are weaker than the enemy? Little things go a long way andrew , I like Mahela as much as everyone onne else and I want him to win his last test as captan, I believe we can win this game , if only we play to win. I agree with your thoughts on the timing of hearath's introduction. But none of those matter if we at least win the game. Yes we can.

  • Joe on January 4, 2013, 14:17 GMT

    Herath, Dilshan, Sangakarra and Mahela are all well over 34 and Sri Lanka with a pathetic youth team, future looks bleak sorry to say. I know you have some promising young players but they don't possess the quality these players I mentioned above hold good luck! :)

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