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
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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.

  • 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?

  • on June 2, 2014, 19:09 GMT

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

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • on June 2, 2014, 19:09 GMT

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

  • St.John on June 2, 2014, 15:58 GMT

    Geoffrey Boycott said in an interview fairly recently that he doesn't see Test cricket existing beyond 2020. Personally I am inclined to believe him although the Ashes series may probably continue...If Geoffrey is right Sri Lanka are going to be top dogs in cricket seeing that they already are ahead of most teams in the short formats. No worries here...

  • TheCricketEmpireStrikesBack on June 2, 2014, 10:20 GMT

    There is a place for all forms of cricket but I agree with the author that more Test cricket involving all test playing nations is required. The limited over formats are money spinners but cricket without Test cricket is repetitive, boring and forgettable - a bit like a hamburger without the meat.

  • chucking_thug800_wickets on June 2, 2014, 9:06 GMT

    @rizwan1981, so ur point is.sachin hs scord so much runs bcz he hs bn gvn favourable conditions alwys. really? so u thing perth/ headingly/Hamilton / sydney/Adelaide/trent bridge/capetown or Melbourne/Johannesburg/old Trafford or centurion/bristol n many more wr only favorable.thats why sac could score runs. and fraser/Donald/ee or McGrath/steyn/ pollack/clusener/fanie devilliers/caddick/Gillespie/warne / hadlee /Flintoff/Mullaly /Johnson/ morkel all of thm who were@ their peak or about2peak were blunted by favourable conditions bowling 2 tendulkar in their home countries where they pile their trade day/night if sac hs nt playd@hobart.dt means hobart is tougher thn rest. thts wht u say? mahela hs nt scored in AUS/ ENG/RSA.he has playd engh inthese countries test or odi.u shd look at why he hs nt please dnt drag sac jst bcse of ur delusions n lies. nt askin u 2nt be critical f sac.bt pls dnt bring slf made lies jst4 the sake of criticism. cheers.mate

  • SamRoy on June 2, 2014, 5:59 GMT

    Sri Lanka's test cricket, despite all its natural talent, has always been very defensive. Being a test cricket fan, I think out of the top 8 test teams I enjoy watching Sri Lanka playing test cricket the least. From Ranatunga to current Matthews I cannot remember an aggressive captain who could go all out to win test matches. Natural talent wise they are next to only Pakistan and SA. I think Sri Lanka is an excellent limited overs team probably the best (or second best) going around and I enjoy watching them in limited overs but as long as they do not get out of safety first attitude from Sri Lankan captains (very similar to Dhoni, another extremely defensive test captain though an excellent limited overs captain) and a lack of interest from administrators their (SL) test cricket isn't going anywhere.

  • 9ST9 on June 2, 2014, 4:39 GMT

    BTW despite their T20 peddling, BCCI make it a point to play a certain number of tests each year so I see Kohli et al playing a decent amount of tests in the future. Then again this is a luxury struggling boards like SLC can't afford.

  • 9ST9 on June 2, 2014, 4:36 GMT

    Well the boards alone cannot be blamed - watch a few games on TV apart from Galle tests in SL are not well attended. Lot of people DO follow the game on TV radio and of late Cricinfo. I understand with the immense heat and humidity watching a game in SL is not enjoyable as in say, England , NZ or SA. But still a little bit of more marketing and more enthusiasm is needed to sustain tests. As it is now it is certainly a sideshow among the fans,and a dull obligation for the board and maybe even the players.

  • 9ST9 on June 2, 2014, 4:20 GMT

    @rizwan1981 I know your comment will get a lot of criticism from all corners but I agree with you - this is a true story the ONLY time in recent memory SL played a Test late in the season was in 1998 and we all know what happened then. In a sport like cricket where conditions play a crucial factor, the factor you named cannot be ignored.

  • on June 2, 2014, 3:32 GMT

    Actually Virat Kohli will get to play a lot of Tests. India play 10 or more Tests a year and the Tests series against England/Australia are 4 Test series. He might not play 200 or 160 Tests like Sachin and Dravid but he'll cross 100 in the next 6-7 years.

  • rizwan1981 on June 1, 2014, 20:03 GMT

    The other disadvantage Sri Lanka has faced in England is being forced to play tests in early May / June unlike India who are always afforded the luxury of playing when the Sun is out in July / August .This allows the Indians to score centuries and boost their averages . I wonder if TENDULKAR would have been as prolific if SACHIN had to face Jimmy Anderson and Co, when its nippy and the ball is seeming and swinging in the first week of May.

    The early summer start has a detrimental effect on Sri Lanka's spinners which in turn afford the English to pile huge scores and put pressure on the likes of Sanga and Mahela.

    A similar pattern emerges when Sri Lanka tour Australia - Mahela has played a total of 7 tests down under out of which 2 have been at Bellerive Oval , Hobart in Tasmania -In comparison , TENDULKAR has NEVER EVER made an apperance in Hobart despite playing 20 Tests in Australia.

  • RohanMarkJay on June 1, 2014, 19:49 GMT

    Yes, Janaka very well written article and I agree with your view on Test cricket. We have to accept outside the ashes contests, test cricket is not going to do well. Unless a new India/Pakistan or Aus/Sout Africa test series can be organized. Even that's doubtful given limited overs cricket is the only cricket the South Asian region is into.Even in the country that you reside in Janaka, Australia. Only the test series involving England brings any large scale interest in Australia for tests.Yes, given that SL had a long struggle to attain test status it is a shame that it is a side show, but the immense popularity of limited overs cricket. One day and especially 20/20 and the financial rewards of 20/20 series IPL in India or Big bash in Australia (big Sri lankan community in Australia) will ensure that test series will be short and merely as an afterthought or put on the back burner for many years to come in the Sri Lankan cricket scene.Upside is SL can win further World trophies.

  • tallgrass on June 1, 2014, 17:11 GMT

    Great article! If we can't go there then at least get top teams to come here and prepare better wickets instead of flat tracks in hambantota and SSC. Arjuna & Co's 96 triumph started with the all those test tours we had beginning with Australia in 92.

  • okeabhijit on June 1, 2014, 13:19 GMT

    Excellent Analysis supported with figures.... How many series has SL played against the likes of WI or NZ in last decade

  • on June 1, 2014, 11:42 GMT

    Agreed, the only indication of more Tests from any nation outside the Big Three is from South Africa, who after this summer's contest against Australia indicated the quality of that match-up was such that it deserved longer series of 4, maybe 5 matches. There's a slight possibility that things are looking up in the Windies, but we'll have to see how that turns out before making a judgement. Elsewhere, it's just an unsavoury soup of ODIs which, according to KP, are "so boring". Can't disagree.

  • muzika_tchaikovskogo on June 1, 2014, 8:49 GMT

    I fear the situation is even worse than Janaka fears- its a case of widening disparity between the haves and have nots. Whereas other teams are hardly playing any test cricket, the big 3 are playing on an average 10-14 tests every year (even 'T20 crazy' India plays at least 10 tests a year). Most test matches the other nations play are against the big 3- how frequently do we get to see SL v NZ or WI v Pak (for example)?

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  • muzika_tchaikovskogo on June 1, 2014, 8:49 GMT

    I fear the situation is even worse than Janaka fears- its a case of widening disparity between the haves and have nots. Whereas other teams are hardly playing any test cricket, the big 3 are playing on an average 10-14 tests every year (even 'T20 crazy' India plays at least 10 tests a year). Most test matches the other nations play are against the big 3- how frequently do we get to see SL v NZ or WI v Pak (for example)?

  • on June 1, 2014, 11:42 GMT

    Agreed, the only indication of more Tests from any nation outside the Big Three is from South Africa, who after this summer's contest against Australia indicated the quality of that match-up was such that it deserved longer series of 4, maybe 5 matches. There's a slight possibility that things are looking up in the Windies, but we'll have to see how that turns out before making a judgement. Elsewhere, it's just an unsavoury soup of ODIs which, according to KP, are "so boring". Can't disagree.

  • okeabhijit on June 1, 2014, 13:19 GMT

    Excellent Analysis supported with figures.... How many series has SL played against the likes of WI or NZ in last decade

  • tallgrass on June 1, 2014, 17:11 GMT

    Great article! If we can't go there then at least get top teams to come here and prepare better wickets instead of flat tracks in hambantota and SSC. Arjuna & Co's 96 triumph started with the all those test tours we had beginning with Australia in 92.

  • RohanMarkJay on June 1, 2014, 19:49 GMT

    Yes, Janaka very well written article and I agree with your view on Test cricket. We have to accept outside the ashes contests, test cricket is not going to do well. Unless a new India/Pakistan or Aus/Sout Africa test series can be organized. Even that's doubtful given limited overs cricket is the only cricket the South Asian region is into.Even in the country that you reside in Janaka, Australia. Only the test series involving England brings any large scale interest in Australia for tests.Yes, given that SL had a long struggle to attain test status it is a shame that it is a side show, but the immense popularity of limited overs cricket. One day and especially 20/20 and the financial rewards of 20/20 series IPL in India or Big bash in Australia (big Sri lankan community in Australia) will ensure that test series will be short and merely as an afterthought or put on the back burner for many years to come in the Sri Lankan cricket scene.Upside is SL can win further World trophies.

  • rizwan1981 on June 1, 2014, 20:03 GMT

    The other disadvantage Sri Lanka has faced in England is being forced to play tests in early May / June unlike India who are always afforded the luxury of playing when the Sun is out in July / August .This allows the Indians to score centuries and boost their averages . I wonder if TENDULKAR would have been as prolific if SACHIN had to face Jimmy Anderson and Co, when its nippy and the ball is seeming and swinging in the first week of May.

    The early summer start has a detrimental effect on Sri Lanka's spinners which in turn afford the English to pile huge scores and put pressure on the likes of Sanga and Mahela.

    A similar pattern emerges when Sri Lanka tour Australia - Mahela has played a total of 7 tests down under out of which 2 have been at Bellerive Oval , Hobart in Tasmania -In comparison , TENDULKAR has NEVER EVER made an apperance in Hobart despite playing 20 Tests in Australia.

  • on June 2, 2014, 3:32 GMT

    Actually Virat Kohli will get to play a lot of Tests. India play 10 or more Tests a year and the Tests series against England/Australia are 4 Test series. He might not play 200 or 160 Tests like Sachin and Dravid but he'll cross 100 in the next 6-7 years.

  • 9ST9 on June 2, 2014, 4:20 GMT

    @rizwan1981 I know your comment will get a lot of criticism from all corners but I agree with you - this is a true story the ONLY time in recent memory SL played a Test late in the season was in 1998 and we all know what happened then. In a sport like cricket where conditions play a crucial factor, the factor you named cannot be ignored.

  • 9ST9 on June 2, 2014, 4:36 GMT

    Well the boards alone cannot be blamed - watch a few games on TV apart from Galle tests in SL are not well attended. Lot of people DO follow the game on TV radio and of late Cricinfo. I understand with the immense heat and humidity watching a game in SL is not enjoyable as in say, England , NZ or SA. But still a little bit of more marketing and more enthusiasm is needed to sustain tests. As it is now it is certainly a sideshow among the fans,and a dull obligation for the board and maybe even the players.

  • 9ST9 on June 2, 2014, 4:39 GMT

    BTW despite their T20 peddling, BCCI make it a point to play a certain number of tests each year so I see Kohli et al playing a decent amount of tests in the future. Then again this is a luxury struggling boards like SLC can't afford.