Eranga capable of sharpening blunt SL attack
The loss in Hobart may not have greatly enhanced the reputation of Sri Lanka's Test pace attack, but there is a Sri Lankan fast bowler who has had a soaring start in Australia. Lasith Malinga possesses the fire to distress batsmen on any surface, and his exploits - eight wickets at 5.75 - have been in the wrong format, and for entirely the wrong team, when Sri Lanka aim to secure victory in a land that has yielded them only disappointment in the longest format.
Injury may have sidelined Australia's two best fast-bowling prospects for the summer, but Sri Lanka's finest quick has been lost to their Test team through a chronic injury for some time now, and his early harvest in the Big Bash League have only served to highlight how sorely he is missed. Less than a week out from the Boxing Day Test, Malinga's long-time mentor and Sri Lanka's fast-bowling coach, Champaka Ramanayake, still harboured hopes that Malinga might play in whites again, but the bowler himself has ruled out a return. If he could play, the visitors' pace attack would be stripped of its humdrum, and re-dressed in venom. Malinga's knee is one of the great frustrations of Sri Lanka's present state.
But there is another, Ramanayake believes, who can lend Sri Lanka's attack the edge it has lacked. Like Malinga, Shaminda Eranga was unearthed at a pace competition in an outstation town, and was quickly brought into Sri Lanka's fast-bowling academies and given a place in a first-class team of his choosing. There he learnt the rudiments of swing and seam under Ramanayake's guidance, and eventually progressed to Sri Lanka's A team, and into the international fold.
His Test debut gave much cause for encouragement, when he squeezed five Australian wickets from a typically lifeless SSC pitch to finish with more scalps than any other quick bowler in the match. A nerve-related back injury then sidelined him for almost a year, but he has done enough on return to retain his place in the team, even if he hasn't yet bettered the haul from his first innings at a Test bowling crease. Eranga has the ability to move the ball both ways off the seam - if modestly - and bring the ball into right-hand batsmen in the air, which has seen him earmarked as talent worth investing in. In Galle, against New Zealand in November, he also showcased a mastery of reverse swing, delivering a series of tailing yorkers towards the end of the visitor's first innings.
Perhaps more crucially for Sri Lanka on their current assignment, Eranga was the only bowler who was not decisively outgunned by Australia's pacemen in Hobart. Easily the sharpest of the visitor's pack, Eranga kept pace with Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc, while Chanaka Welegedara struggled to hit the low 130s (kph), and Nuwan Kulasekara was slower still.
"Eranga is a guy who can give us a bit of firepower," Ramanayake said. "He has only played four Test matches, three of which were in Sri Lanka. He played against Australia at home and he bowled really well in that game. I can see that he's bowling 140-plus, and as time goes, he can be a very good bowler who can take five-wicket hauls and win us some games."
Eranga's promise was not evident in his figures from Hobart, however, and while Starc and Siddle both earned five-wicket hauls, Eranga's match figures were 2 for 143. Australian pitches reward bounce more than most, and in that regard, he is hampered by a bowling action that remains essentially homespun. Eranga does not brace his front leg at the crease, nor is his arm vertical at release, and accordingly, he does not generate the lift that he could achieve, given his height. His movement too, was missing in Hobart - and though a flat pitch in the first innings allowed little lateral movement for any bowler, there was reverse swing in evidence later in the game, which Eranga did not exploit. A tendency to become intermittently wayward also undermined the efforts of other bowlers, when they had been building pressure with tight spells from the other end.
"If he can start moving the ball a little bit more with his pace, I'm sure he'll be able to take more wickets," Ramanayake said. "Consistency as well, is key. If he can bowl in the right areas and keep his lines and lengths, I'm sure that he will get there very soon."
In an attack desperate for an aggressor, Eranga is the only bowler with the pace to become a truly fearsome force in Australia, and as such, his performance is key to their prospects in the remaining Tests. Eranga has impressed the selectors and coaching staff with his potential, but until his results begin to match that promise, Sri Lanka's pace attack is may not progress beyond pedestrian.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent