November 28, 2003

Sri Lanka's selection crucial in Galle

There can be no more persuasive case for the revitalising power of a good holiday than the first ODI against England. Sri Lanka, champing at the bit after four months without international cricket, conjured up a storming performance. No wonder John Dyson, the new coach, was smiling like a Cheshire cat afterwards at the team hotel.

Since taking charge on Sept 1, Dyson has not had the smoothest of rides. The tragic death of his father forced him home for a while and the cursed dengue fever left him bedridden soon after his return. In between he has been trying to win the respect of some senior players, who were suspicious at the outset of his relative lack of top class coaching experience. But on the evidence of a single razor sharp performance, Dyson has made a positive impact. He can now afford to relax a little.

© Getty Images 2003

Sri Lanka's performance was refreshing for two reasons: first the boldness of the selection and the fearless response of the two debutantes, Nuwan Kulasekera and Dinusha Fernando. They should not be lauded too much, as the pitch was sticky and England's batting loose, but they showed great promise. The fact that both players have scored useful first-class runs is even more encouraging - Sri Lanka are developing greater depth in their batting.

The second major plus for Sri Lanka was the catching. Mahela Jayawardene's quick reactions and athleticism at slip were a joy. You could not believe this was the same man that wouldn't have caught a toffee-stick against New Zealand earlier in the year. Tillakaratne Dilshan, a predatory fieldsman, also hung on to a stinging catch at point off Ian Blackwell. Three sharp catches were gobbled and England's fate sealed.

Sri Lanka's openers, thankfully not distracted by the unusual decision to hold a fireworks display at the start of the second session, did what they do best: smack bad bowling. England's bowlers, striving too hard for wickets after their batsmen had left them with an impossible task, served up some loose offerings and Sri Lanka cantered home. We did not even have time to find out just how difficult it might be batting under the new Dambulla lights.

© Wisden CricInfo

Unfortunately, the rain-soaked weekend in Colombo that followed, coupled with Sri Lanka's history of inconsistency, means that a 1-0 series win should not be trumpeted too much. Sri Lanka landed a couple of useful early psychological blows - that's all. The Test series beckons and with England's senior henchmen having returned - Nasser Hussain, Mark Butcher, Graham Thorpe - a serious challenge awaits.

The usual recipe of heat, humidity and Murali might not be enough to overcome England's batters this time. Murali has been sniping away in the media like a prizefighter, but he knows that England have handled him with disturbing ease in the last two series. His strike rate has plummeted to one wicket per 15 overs. Sri Lanka must contain England's batters and Murali can 't be left shouldering all the responsibility - selection in Galle is crucial.

Sri Lanka can be expected to select only four frontline bowlers - probably Chaminda Vaas, Dilhara Fernando, Murali and Upul Chandana - with either Thilan Samaraweera or Tillakaratne Dilshan at six. With Sanath Jayasuriya, who has an excellent record against England, also available then the attack has a well-rounded look.

But Sri Lanka need more options against England's key left-handers and Kumar Dharmasena should play in place of the sixth batsmen. Murali is less comfortable against left-handers, despite all the guff to the contrary, and Samaraweera is simply not threatening enough. This will mean that Romesh Kaluwitharana will have to shift up the order - hopefully that will focus his mind. A lower order of Dharmasena, Chandana and Vaas has the potential to compensate for the loss the batting specialist.

Whether Sri Lanka are willing to take that gambit remains to be seen. The captain is not a poker player and we don't expect risk-taking. That will give England heart. They will try to stay in the series for as long as possible. The longer they do so the more chance they have of putting Sri Lanka under pressure. The onus is on Sri Lanka to hit the ground running, like they did in Dambulla, and take charge of the series. This is Tilakaratne's test.