Sri Lanka dismiss climate of fear
A new era dawns for Australia on Thursday and Sri Lanka want to make it as cloudy as the skies over the Gabba in the lead-up to the first Test. Ricky Ponting is determined not to break stride even though he lost four pillars in the past year, but the large-scale changes have allowed the visitors to dream of defeating their hosts in Australia for the first time.
The experienced core of Sanath Jayasuriya, Marvan Atapattu, Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas support the captain Mahela Jayawardene and offer Sri Lanka their best chance of overcoming a side that has regularly dominated the world. Unfortunately there is a major hitch with the absence of the multi-talented Kumar Sangakkara. His hamstring tear in the tour match at Adelaide could be the moment an even contest became unbalanced.
Ponting sees things much differently and believes his opponents carry the same fear that forced them to rest key players when they faced Australia in the Super Eights at the World Cup. "It's the same group and we've got a very good record against them," Ponting said. "We had a great Test series against them in my first series as captain [in 2004]. All those fears are definitely still there. We want to start this series well and reinvigorate some of those fears that are still in them."
Sri Lanka remain confident despite poor batting in the warm-up against Queensland and a disrupted preparation because of the lingering wet weather. "We don't fear Australia," Jayawardene said. "We've improved as a group over the past two years, especially away from home."
Series in England, New Zealand and Pakistan have been drawn since 2004, when they lost to Australia. Sri Lanka have won only one Test against Australia, in Kandy in 1999, and Jayawardene will need his senior men to be united and in top form if they are to add a second.
"We've got a group of guys who are in the latter stages of their careers and to face Australia right now, with the players we've got, we've got the right blend," he said. "The last time we came we had a very good batting line-up but the bowling was too young. This time we've got a balanced team and if we can compete with Australia we will have a very good chance of doing well."
The tourists trimmed the squad to 12 on Wednesday but will wait until match day before deciding whether to employ four fast men alongside Muttiah Muralitharan or pick three and have the added security of the wicketkeeper Prasanna Jayawardene at No. 7. Australia have no doubts and Ponting confirmed Mitchell Johnson would finally win a baggy green after a series of 12th man duties during the 2006-07 Ashes.
"I've been really excited about Mitchell over the last couple of years," Ponting said. "He'll be a bit nervous, but he's got everything there to be successful at this level. He can bowl at 150kph and swing the ball."
Johnson forms part of Australia's new face, which also includes the opener Phil Jaques and Stuart MacGill, who is back after an 18-month break. Despite the change in personnel, Ponting dismissed any thought that Australia would lose the winning habit following the retirements of Warne, McGrath, Langer and Martyn. He must look in different spots for key wickets, but won't consider conservative tactics.
"Australia only knows one way to play," he said. "We're out there to win games. We've had a great record with those guys in, but the fact is they're not there now and we have to find a way to win games without them. There's an opportunity for this group to create its own identity as a team."
Building momentum could be tricky over the first three days as showers are forecast to continue until Saturday. The covers came off briefly in the morning to reveal a surface with strong patches of green, which softened when the pitch was mowed and rolled during a rare clear patch. Brisbane is experiencing a severe drought - residents are restricted to 140 litres per person per day - and the rain is welcome for locals, but not captains of teams desperate for an early advantage.
Australia 1 Matthew Hayden, 2 Phil Jaques, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Michael Hussey, 5 Michael Clarke, 6 Andrew Symonds, 7 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 8 Brett Lee, 9 Mitchell Johnson, 10 Stuart Clark, 11 Stuart MacGill.
Sri Lanka (probable) 1 Sanath Jayasuriya, 2 Marvan Atapattu, 3 Michael Vandort, 4 Mahela Jayawardene (capt), 5 Thilan Samaraweera, 6 Chamara Silva, 7 Prasanna Jayawardene (wk), 8 Chaminda Vaas, 9 Dilhara Fernando, 10 Lasith Malinga, 11 Muttiah Muralitharan.
Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo