Australia v Sri Lanka, 3rd Test, Sydney, 3rd day January 5, 2013

Australia wrest mental high ground from Sri Lanka

A factor for Australia's dominance over Sri Lanka is their psychological edge over them. It was on display on the third day in Sydney as well, with Sri Lanka imploding due to the pressure

In the approach to 2005 Ashes series, Ricky Ponting was pressed on that most Australian of cricketing concepts. "Mental disintegration?" Ponting said. "That's what it's all about really, trying to keep England under pressure from ball one of the series until the series ends. That's what our whole cricket theme, if you like, is based on."

It is not an outlook that is as closely associated with Michael Clarke's captaincy. His voice is a bit high, perhaps, and his hair too fashionably shorn for him to be cast in that Alan Border-Tubby Taylor-Steve Waugh mould. And Australia have not been so openly aggressive in this series as they were on past tours. Words have come now and then from the fast men, but even Sri Lanka's cricketers would have encountered that as far back as their school system. Yet, the "theme" Ponting outlined has never been distant.

Clarke's men have not lashed out at specific targets with their tongues, or been given to excessive chest beating when wickets and victories have come, but "from ball one of the series, until the series ends" they have beaten Sri Lanka back again and again, first in the mind, then on the scoreboard.

In comparison to questioning the fidelity of opposition players' spouses and launching expletive-riddled tirades on technique, Clarke's approach has almost been passive-aggressive. Twice in this series he has laid down the gauntlet by declaring the innings when nobody - not even the batsmen in the middle - could have suspected one was coming.

On the third day in Sydney, while the pitch remained fine for batting and Matthew Wade hurtled onward, Clarke's declaration defied logic. The match was not ripe enough yet for every minute and delivery to have become so valuable, but the arrogance in Clarke's action was unmistakable. Mark Waugh once told James Ormond "there's no way you're good enough to play for England, mate", in a sledge that is more famous for Ormond's response. In Sydney, Clarke told Sri Lanka, "We might have to bat last on a dry pitch, but there's no way you blokes are good enough to stretch us here." Latent intent. In the third session, Sri Lanka's middle order could not summon the resolve to thumb their noses at Clarke, like Ormond did with, "At least I'm the best cricketer in my family."

When Sri Lanka look back at this series, they will know that it is in the mind that they gave away most ground, particularly with the bat. Dimuth Karunaratne may have fallen to a good ball straight after tea, but Lahiru Thirimanne allowed Australia's squeeze to force an error, and he hooked a high ball that even the most seasoned batsman would have struggled to control. Thilan Samaraweera's jaw-dropping swipe across the line was more a result of baggage from previous psychological beatings on tour.

Extreme pressure has been found to drive men to insanity, and for a player whose game is built upon a mighty defence to play that stroke so early is not so far from madness. Angelo Mathews and Mahela Jayawardene were no better at defying the Australian vice, as they contrived a run out. Perhaps distracted, Jayawardene edged one to slip after having progressed so securely before the clatter at the other end.

It had seemed so promising for Sri Lanka when Karunaratne and Jayawardene were at the crease before tea. The ball raced off their blades as Australia sprayed it around, and with the deficit almost wiped and nine wickets remaining, an upset victory seemed a firm possibility. But when Australia regrouped at the break, as they have done after poor periods all through the series, Sri Lanka parted with the mental virtues that might have seen them through.

"When you play against Australia you can't go on the back foot," Karunaratne said at day's end. "After tea when the ball became old, they started to do various things with the ball. They reverse swung it, changed their pace and bowled variations. They also bowled a very good line and made it tight. We made lots of mistakes and that's what happened."

But even beyond the batting, Australia seem much more aware of the effect of a positive outlook, and they endeavour to keep spirits high and minds focused at every stage of a match. Sri Lanka's pace attack is far less experienced than the hosts', and as such, likely more prone to self-doubt. Yet, when a bowler is carted for boundaries, there is nary a word of encouragement, or a reassuring pat on the behind; whereas when Karunaratne had his way with Australia's quicks in the second session, three or four bowlers would rush to affirm their mate. There's something Spartan in all of that, and Sri Lanka were feeble and flat in comparison.

There is always room for a "miracle" as defined by the sports journalist's lexicon, but 87 ahead, seven down and two bunnies to come is not a match situation that bodes well for the visitors. Mahela Jayawardene played his last Test innings in Australia today, as did Thilan Samaraweera and Tillakaratne Dilshan. Kumar Sangakkara, in his whites, has already bid Australia goodbye. Many have spoken of the "talent cliff" Sri Lanka face when that quartet depart, but those who have followed Thirimanne, Karunaratne, Mathews and Chandimal will know that it is not as bleak as all that.

Sri Lanka can only hope that when the youngsters return to Australia, they will not only have fostered better habits and forged more muscular techniques, they will also have acquired the fortitude that will see them strike harder when stricken, shove before being shoved and scream defiant bloody murder at an opposition that would have their spirit silenced.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mark on January 6, 2013, 21:24 GMT

    @miles100 yes you're India has always had a better bowling attack than Sri Lanka.Back in the 1980s India excellent allrounder like Kapil Dev who could take 8 or 9 wickets in a test match.Also back in the 1970s India had without question the best spin bowling attack in the world. Sri lanka barring Rumesh and Ravi Rathnayake in the 1980s and Murali and Vaas in the 1990s are the closest that Sri Lanka has come to matching India's bowling attack.Currently India's or Sri Lanka's bowling attack can't bowl sides out twice on a regular basis especially overseas.This is something Sri Lanka should address fast they will continue to slide down the test table. Oddly Sri Lanka does play better against England and South Africa.I think mentally they hate losing to England or South Africa compared to Australia. I always see Sri Lanka fight hard against South Africa and Especially against England.Ashes winning England plays quite poorly against Sri Lanka.However Sri Lanka is pathetic against Australia.

  • Miles on January 6, 2013, 7:05 GMT

    @RohanMarkJay, I personally think Indian fast bowling line up is better than our fast bowling line up by looking at recent statistics. They have aggressive fast bowlers who are mentally tough. Indian fielding is weaker than our fielding overall. If Sri Lanka were to become one of the worlds best fast bowling line up in the world, they have to start conditioning them both physically and Mentally from the age 13-15 as well as building a few bouncy wickets in the Island. It is a big investment to invest on fast bowlers to condition them. But SLC had so much money to do all these but not sure what happened to those millions of dollars they made since the 96 world cup.

  • Miles on January 6, 2013, 6:03 GMT

    Dinesh & Herath are the only ones who passed the mental battle though.Our future with spinners look good even after herath is gone.Poor Chandimal was the most underrated youngster among the SL selectors for some reason.If Mubarak had played this well,they would have made Mubarak the captain by now.That's how much support Rich Mubarak got. Even Karunaratne should have been introduced when he was 19yrs(3 to 4 years ago) because last 3-4 years of his career was wasted playing in weaker SL club competition. If Sri Lanka were to win test series' in Countries like AU, India and SA, they have to invest their money in conditioning our fast bowlers both physically and mentally and start bringing players soon after school cricket. This is how players like Aravinda, Arjuna, Vaas,Murali, Sanga, Sanath, Kalu Now Dinesh came to the side at very young age. This is why they are mentally confident.If Dimuth & Lahiru came when they were 19yrs,they wouldn't be nervous to get those centuries.

  • Dummy4 on January 6, 2013, 5:06 GMT

    Rather than considering about captancy Angelo first should justify his place in the side, bad to have a player who just doing captaning in the side. Since next test is soo far away, Dilshan, Samare, Prasanna can reconsider there future, so Dimuth, Lahiru, Chandi and anithor young batter who can ball bit of spin can have a decent go at test level (No Paranavithana plz).... Sri lanka under used Rangana most of the time, he was introduced to the attack lately always but yet in the last test he shaws that if we add another 60-70 runs and drag the game to the last day we were almost there with the first test win in AUS. (He is a real hero, great spinner, lead so called weak attack to first ever win in SA and almost in AUS..... nobody ever did that) Hats off

  • Viraj on January 5, 2013, 22:34 GMT

    Yes SL lacks mental trength . SL does not dish out the knock out punch. It is the laid back mindset that have caused endless draws, " un-attempted " wins and pathetic defeats. Aus have set , maintained and improved standards. Hats off. SL captain and coach go on public pre-match that SL bowlers are weaker than the 3rd string Aus attack while 3 Aus players pat an upset bowler on the back after getting hit for a four by a SL batsman. That explains the difference between positive and negative mindsets. SL can still play to win.

  • Nathan on January 5, 2013, 19:21 GMT

    Fantastic article Andrew! This is what I really liked: "Sri Lanka's middle order could not summon the resolve to thumb their noses at Clarke" it's such a shame that these cricketers and the back office staff get paid such a healthy remuneration to do a good days work, but time and time again these guys come short of what they suppose to do. I have commented many times in this section that Sri lankan cricketers are very soft and naive when is come to playing test cricket. Then again how can these cricketers improve their mental toughness when they play in a uncompetitive friendly club tournament in Srilanka. The recently concluded U19 tournament in Australia, in which Srilanka ended up 8th in the competition is also an indication how the entire cricketing setup has failed to keep up with the international cricketing standards. Who is taking responsibility to this state of affairs???? Who has the guts, professionalism and heart to lift the Srilankan cricket again???

  • Mark on January 5, 2013, 18:27 GMT

    Sri Lanka's perennial problem, having a good bowling attack. Sri Lanka shares the same problems in cricket like India does. One has to wonder why these two subcontinental nations can't produce bowlers of exceptional abilities like Pakistan can with factory production line like regularity. I guess nations with similar cultures like India and Sri lanka have will produce similar type national cricket sides. Not surprised both prefer limited overs cricket over the prestigious test format and both play like that too as Sri Lanka's very poor performance at the MCG has indicated. If this continues Test cricket will become an irrelevance in both nations and India and Sri Lanka will be lost to test cricket.

  • Dummy4 on January 5, 2013, 18:06 GMT

    Chandimal , thirimanne andd Dimuth should be permenan in both Tests and ODIs..These are moang world`s top 5 young batsmen

  • Dru on January 5, 2013, 17:46 GMT

    Unfortunately when it mattered SL disintegrated and Aus only to show up! While the Aus bowling was good the shot selection and chaos after tea was all SL's doing and time and again when the moment arrives for SL make a move in a test match - they self destruct. Its nothing new and even in the days SL were a decent test team, they mainly won when they run in front and this basically means get plenty of runs and unleash Murali. When it comes to trench war fare SL seldom have what it takes. Example of trench warefare would be Wade's fighting hundered when it really counted to ensure the Aus lead counted.