Australia v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Hobart December 13, 2012

A defining tour in a one-sided rivalry

On the surface, Sri Lanka's chances are not promising, but they have drawn steel from their rivalry with Australia in recent years

Though Sri Lanka may not rank as highly on Australia's list of favourite foes, for most Sri Lankan fans, a victory against Australia is sweeter than any other. Australia were the arch-villains in Sri Lanka's adolescence in international cricket, and those memories remain vivid, and attitudes entrenched, almost 20 years later.

The only time Sri Lanka played a Boxing Day Test, the man who would become their greatest cricketer was called for throwing by an Australian umpire. Several months later, Australia declined to play a World Cup match in Sri Lanka, and were their opponent in the final - an occasion which unequivocally remains Sri Lanka's most treasured cricket memory.

Even beyond Sri Lanka's coming of age, the taunts Murali endured in Australia fueled the rivalry, particularly when then prime minister of Australia, John Howard, waded into the debate. A decade of tactics aimed at mental disintegration also failed to endear the Australian side to Sri Lankan fans, whose own team often espoused a simpler, friendlier ethos, which seemed the diametric opposite of Steve Waugh's abrasive, but outstanding approach.

Times have changed. Ricky Ponting was the final remnant of that Australian era, but will not take guard in this series, and he had softened with the tide in any case. Murali is now a coveted commodity in Australia's Big Bash League, while Lasith Malinga - the more modern evangelist for Sri Lankan heresy - reaps scalps with abandon in the same competition. Yet, a victory against Australia, particularly in their own country, will not rank far below their World Cup triumph and will be celebrated for years to come.

On the surface however, the visitors' chances are not promising. Australia may be stitching up the cuts endured in an epic tilt at the top ranking, but a seemingly unsettled top four hides a middle order deep in form at its most fetching, while the attack has begun to reclaim the ferocity - if not quite the magic - of its predecessors. Ponting will take some replacing, but a relatively fresh batting order will find Shaminda Eranga, Chanaka Welegedara and Nuwan Kulasekara a far less daunting assignment than the venom-tipped steel of South Africa's fast men.

A pace attack bereft of a single bowler with 50 Test wickets to his name, or even 20 appearances at the top level, may serve as the perfect opportunity for Shane Watson and Phillip Hughes to break in their new roles, and for each of the top four to tune up ahead of tours in India and England. Rangana Herath has emerged as Sri Lanka's primary match-winner in the last 18 months, but Australian pitches will likely limit his threat, and as Kumar Sangakkara hinted ahead of the first Test, only a surface approaching a greentop in Hobart will dress the Sri Lankan attack with enough penetration to effect a win there.

For Sri Lanka's batsmen, the tour shapes as a hugely defining one, particularly on a personal level. This will be the last dance in Australia for the two latest inductees into Sri Lanka's batting pantheon, and Sangakkara in particular has a chance to confirm himself as a modern great if he succeeds over the next month. Rumours have been floating of Tillakaratne Dilshan's Test retirement too, while Thilan Samaraweera will also want to further erode a former-reputation as a home-track hero, before what looms as a largely empty 2013 for him, with Sri Lanka's Test postponements and cancellations having left Test specialists with little to look forward to.

"A lot of the guys will be very hungry to do well," Mahela Jayawardene said. "It's a big occasion for some of our guys, including myself. I haven't played Tests in Melbourne or Sydney, for example, and it's a great atmosphere. Those are incentives for the guys to lift their game and do well. Especially when you're playing against a top side like Australia, you want to lift your game. It's about pride. We aren't just there to make up the numbers, we're going to play a good game. Individually the guys will have to come up with a game plan on how they're going to adjust. The bowlers will have to work out how to attack a really good batting line-up as well."

Sri Lanka have drawn steel from their rivalry with Australia in recent years, and have competed well in ODI series, even winning a three-match bilateral down under in 2010. They may not have the personnel in hand to shape up as a serious challenge to Australia, but if they can find that extra tenacity in their reserves like they have in the limited-overs series, perhaps they can lift their game as Jayawardene hopes. It is the only way they can break a 24-year old duck on Australian soil.

Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent

Comments