June 1, 2014

Testing times for Sri Lanka

Given Sri Lanka's long struggle to attain Test status, the demotion of the five-day format to an inconvenient sideshow is particularly galling

Sri Lanka in whites: an increasingly rare sight © AFP

Sri Lanka are well into their tour of England and Ireland, but the real meat of the tour is yet to start. On June 12, Sri Lanka will play England at Lord's in the first match of that latter-day abomination, a two-Test series.

Sri Lanka suffered the indignity of desultory single-Test tours for almost 20 years, before the ECB deigned to grant them a Test series in 2002, six years after Sri Lanka had thrashed England on their way to winning the World Cup. For a brief period Sri Lanka played three-match Test series against England, a format that allows a narrative between the two teams to develop, and, more often than not, leaves a clear victor. But, regrettably, the hideous compromise of the two-Test series seems to have become firmly established, a victim of the rise of the T20 game and the bottom line.

Given the long struggle to attain Test status - and no country had to wait as long for the honour as Sri Lanka - the demotion of Test cricket to an inconvenient sideshow is particularly galling. Truth be told, Sri Lanka have played Tests so infrequently of late, it could reasonably be asked whether they deserve to be called a Test nation at all. In 2013, Sri Lanka played a total of three full Test matches. Let me repeat that. The national side played a grand total of 14 days of Test cricket in the entire calendar year. It is as embarrassing as it is pitiful.

The paucity of Test cricket has obvious ramifications for the experience of younger players. The last Test Sri Lanka played was in Chittagong in February this year. The total number of Test caps in the Sri Lankan team that day was 384. The total number of caps in the England side in their last match, the fifth Test of the disastrous Ashes series, was close to 500, and that in a team with three debutants. That difference in experience might not sound overwhelming, but the most superficial of explorations reveals a far grimmer picture.

The national side played a grand total of 14 days of Test cricket in 2013. It is as embarrassing as it is pitiful

Nine of that Sri Lankan team mustered a total of 119 caps, three fewer than Kumar Sangakkara's individual tally. Between them, Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene accounted for 265 of those 384 caps, just under 70% of the total. When Jayawardene and Sangakkara retire from the Test arena, they won't just leave a hole in the Sri Lankan team, they'll leave a chasm as vast as the Mariana Trench.

The two openers in that Bangladesh Test were Dimuth Karunaratne, 26, and Kaushal Silva, 28. Hardly in the first flush of youth, but with a reasonable shelf life in front of them, their Test careers are approximately three years old. They have played 11 and eight Test matches respectively. At the same stage of their careers, three years in, Sangakkara had played 30 Tests, and Jayawardene had played 23. The two men most likely to replace these giants are Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne, who have played 12 and ten Tests respectively, and are also about three years into their Test careers. Of today's generation of players, only the captain Angelo Mathews has had meaningful Test exposure.

Nor are the bowlers faring any better. Nuwan Kulasekara, the leader of the attack in the Test format, has a paltry 20 Tests, which exceeds the number of Tests Ajantha Mendis, Suranga Lakmal, and Nuwan Pradeep have played. Rangana Herath has a respectable 51 Tests to his name, all the more impressive given he played second fiddle to Muttiah Muralitharan for much of his career, but his career must also be in its final throes.

Sri Lanka, of course, are not the only team suffering from this malady. The fine words spoken about the five-day game being the pinnacle of cricket, the format in which the best players want to test themselves and secure their places in history, have not been matched with action to support Test cricket. Look at the names of the highest run-accumulators in the game. Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara, Jacques Kallis. Of the top ten, only Chanderpaul, Jayawardene and Sangakkara are still playing. Let your eyes wander down that list. Who will break into the top ten, the top 20? Michael Clarke, perhaps, although given his dodgy back that is questionable. Alastair Cook may beat them all, but it is hard to see who else could.

That list is dominated by players whose careers flourished in the '80s, '90s, and 2000s. Virat Kohli, the standard bearer for his generation of batsmen, is unlikely to play enough Tests to force his way into that group. It would be unutterably sad if the list of Test elite were to be fossilised over the next few years. If men with triple-hundreds and ten-wicket hauls become behemoths of a past era, existing only in our memories, that might prove to be an extinction-level event for cricket.

Janaka Malwatta is a poet, doctor and cricket lover who lives in Brisbane. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • vallavarayar on June 5, 2014, 5:03 GMT

    Come to think of it, the ICC needs to think of the long term instead of just short term profits. Or are they really envisioning a world where only a handful of countries play meaningful cricket while the rest are satisfied with the t20?

  • TheChap on June 3, 2014, 15:54 GMT

    How can it be that England played back-to-back Ashes series (which utterly devalues the whole contest) in 2013, yet SL play just 3 tests in that same year?!

    What is going on ICC..??!! The need for a regular schedule, to which all playing nations agree is vital for the future of test cricket...no more 2 test tours either!

  • CricketMaan on June 3, 2014, 12:15 GMT

    My son who is 5 has no clue about cricket in whites, although he does get excited to watch T20, sad but true. I dont watch Test coz i dont have the time and it conflicts with work hours! Will it even exsist when my son turns 15, maybe only Aus and Eng will play Ashes! How can Tests survive when the quality of cricket is steadily in decline. We see Steyn, Ajmal, Jimmy or a Ryan today, but what about future. Look at the quality of spinner, its appaling to see the list beyond Ajmal, Herath amonst the best. The closest is Ashwin because he has 100 test wickets, but he too had not proved his worth overseas although only played a handful. AB, Amla, Clarke, Chanders, Younis, Sanga, Cook, Bell are the stand outs in Tests! But can Kholis, Warners, Roots sustain the longevity, only time will tell.

  • Yousufahmed1 on June 3, 2014, 8:17 GMT

    @ rizwan1981 If I remember clearly last CT was in England and IND and Sl played together in that tournament. And IND won without breaking into sweat till finals but on the other hand SL huffed and puffed to Semi final(they were lucky coz AUS had to win with big margin and they went for it and lost the match). And till today Sanga(who I consider the best batsman SL has ever produced) has 4 100s outside SC after playing 122 test matches on the other hand Tendulkar had 5 100s outside Sub continent before turning 20.

  • Udendra on June 3, 2014, 7:26 GMT

    for test cricket to be attractive, it should have diversity. Not only the same 3,4 teams playing all the time.

  • IndianInnerEdge on June 3, 2014, 5:49 GMT

    @rizwan1981 ....maybe conditions had also a lot to do with SL not winning a single test in India so far...eh?

  • IndianInnerEdge on June 3, 2014, 5:46 GMT

    Nice article and good facts presented byJM....never realised that SL has played so less tests....is this due to commercial interests that the shorter forms of the game has in SL?I hope the true test lover in SL takes note and more tests are put in the agenda for all countries.How can a player get better at a particular format unless he plays more and more of this? Re - Kohli - i feel is a vastly over rated player - at test level. At ODI's he will be one of the top scorers but tests are a diff kettle of fish. Am also worried that ODI's and T20 are negating the aggressive wicket taking bowlers, other than johnson and steyn-no one else on the horizon who can single handedly run through a side.....tests need to become the priority and all other formats should work around this

  • ksquared on June 3, 2014, 3:44 GMT

    The two test series is a big joke and the ICC talks about reviving test cricket and they fail to see two test series are one reason that test cricket is dying outside the big three and possibly SA. Looking at it from this articles point of view it is no wonder SL don't play many tests when they get roped into these meaningless two test series. The step-motherly treatment meted out to SL cricket by the English is quite obvious and it still continues they didn't offer SL a three test series until Murali embarrassed them in 1998 and it only came in 2002. SL has always performed well in England even in the last tour they lost 1 and managed to draw 2 test matches and that too in early may, Compared with IND who were thrashed 4-0 in the summer of the same year. They now want to do a 5-0 sweep!! that too by stripping one test from SL. Well gone are the days where cricket was about passion and skill now its all about the money.

  • dummy4fb on June 2, 2014, 19:17 GMT

    I'm surprised the writer forgot the names of AB De Villiers and Hashim Amla when he spoke about the future of batting. They have already achieved a great deal of success and are far, far superior to someone like Kohli. I don't know why Kohli is rated so highly as if he is already close to becoming a legend of the game. He hasn't achieved anything of substance in tests, yet. The future of bowling remains a much bigger concern, in my opinion. In the 90s and early 2000s, you had Ambrose, Akram, Donald, Walsh, Waqar, Pollock, McGrath, Warne and Murali. Of this era, only Steyn is in the same league as them. Will the quality of bowling in world cricket go up in the near future?

  • android_user on June 2, 2014, 19:09 GMT

    there's no need to make too much out of this. test cricket will never die.

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