Sri Lanka in England 2014 June 9, 2014

Sri Lanka out to settle grudges

Accustomed to dealing with disturbances, Sri Lanka's siege mentality and desire to win has grown stronger with each English antagonism

Who is Sri Lanka's greatest cricketing rival? There was once a clear winner but the now the answer lies in shifting sands. Australia had been cast as arch-villain in Sri Lanka's cricket adolescence and there are still many fans who savour wins over Australia most, if only for their enduring scarcity.

In recent years, matches against India have evoked the strongest emotions. Once the island's older brother, India has been re-imagined as a bully by some. But, at this present minute, neither India nor Australia are Sri Lanka's most coveted target. Following months of skirmishing in board rooms, on the field and in the media, the Tests against England have become a quest for justice.

Sri Lanka have the limited-overs series in the bag but, with the ODIs having built to a fever pitch, a victory at Lord's or Headingley would by some distance be the sweetest of the tour. For a side that does not often engage in on-field aggression, and whose tempers run steadier than most, this is about as heated as it gets.

Sri Lanka's quarrels with England are many. There was Sri Lanka's abstention as tensions ran high over the 'Big Three' plan for the ICC in Singapore in February, but of more immediate consequence to the players has been Paul Farbrace's move to England. The players have refused to blame Farbrace, who was a popular and effective coach in his short time in charge, but resentment still lingers at the timing of his departure.

"I understand the choice Farby made," Kumar Sangakkara had said ahead of the ODIs. "Whether it was fair of the ECB to put him in that situation when he was still with us is a different question. It wasn't pleasant."

There were hints of insider knowledge in England's mode of attack in the ODI series, particularly in the manner they targeted Sri Lanka's young batsmen, even if the team came through that scrape okay.

Sri Lanka are less secure in the Test arena and it is here Farbrace has most scope to confer an advantage. Just months ago, he was in meetings about the aspects of Sri Lanka's cricket they must aim to sharpen up. He has seen techniques and temperaments at an intimate distance. He knows which loose strings to tug on to make the whole fabric unravel.

The questions raised over Sachithra Senanayake's bowling action have also irked the side. When they learned of his being reported by the match officials, the team wondered again about the timing. Senanayake has played international cricket without issue for two years. These kinds of things happen in "certain parts of the world", captain Angelo Mathews said on the subject.

More accustomed to staving off homegrown disturbances, the team has long learned to thrive within a siege mentality. They are more desperate for success now than they were a week ago

Whether or not Senanayake's action is legal remains to be seen but there has almost certainly been more scrutiny and suspicion in England than he had previously had on any other tour. Mahela Jayawardene later revealed how the team had closed ranks around Senanayake, setting up a team dinner in his honour. "It was definitely a big motivating factor," he said.

The sides also remain at odds over Senanayake's Mankading of Jos Buttler at Edgbaston. Days later, some England players maintained Sri Lanka had played unsporting cricket, while Sri Lanka's players have shown no sympathy for Buttler, or remorse. More accustomed to staving off homegrown disturbances, the team has long learned to thrive within a siege mentality. They are more desperate for success now than they were a week ago.

But desire alone will not bring success when so much inexperience abounds. The likely openers have fewer than 20 Tests between them and not one pace bowler in the squad has more than 20 matches to his name. Dimuth Karunaratne will face a stern test of his technique, if he gets to play, while Shaminda Eranga has the opportunity to crystallise the promise his sharp seam bowling has so far suggested.

Mathews is also leading the Test side outside Asia for the first time. His handling of the limited-overs sides has been astute, but there have been damaging moments of conservatism in the long format. Mistakes are perhaps inevitable for a captain so young. A heartening scoreline in this series would see Mathews quell doubts and entrench himself fully as Sri Lanka's long-term leader.

He had been in fine rhythm with both bat and ball in the ODIs and his batting, in particular, may prove crucial if England get the green tracks they have reportedly requested, and the top order is laid low early. In Tests against Pakistan this year, Mathews had unveiled both an appetite for circumspect rebuilding and for large scores.

Sangakkara and Jayawardene, though, have been through it all before. They have been in sides that have triumphed in foreign conditions, and others that have been blanked. They know how the team can draw from collective frustration, and they know at which point such feelings become destructive.

The pair arrive now at their final opportunity to redress mediocre Test records in England. A Test series win here has eluded both men as well. They will hope to leave the country with more than just a litany of grievances.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

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