India v Sri Lanka, 3rd Test, Ahmedabad, 5th day December 22, 2005

A chronicle of underachievement

The end could not have been sadder, swifter or lamer. Sri Lanka's thumping defeat at Ahmedabad sealed a disastrous end-of-tour report and once again highlighted their chronic fallibility overseas

After a good start to his captaincy stint, Marvan Atapattu is now facing the real test of his leadership © AFP

The end could not have been sadder, swifter or lamer. Sri Lanka eventually plunged to defeat within 30 minutes of play, fired out by Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble to complete a gutless display. The 259-run defeat, the second hammering of the three-match series, sealed a disastrous end-of-tour report and once again highlighted Sri Lanka's chronic fallibility overseas.

Afterwards Marvan Atapattu mumbled into the microphone, claiming some positives in the debris of the tour. The interviewer obligingly shifted the conversation onto whether they had enjoyed India the country, as opposed to India the cricket team. But were there really positives to come out of this calamity? It's hard to see anything substantial that offers great hope for the near future.

The saddest part is that Sri Lanka underachieved so badly. India are a formidable side on-song at home, stuffed with rich batting talent right down to No. 9 (possibly even No. 10 as Ajit Agarkar is no mug) and blessed with strong bowling, a wonderful left-arm swing bowler in Irfan Pathan and the deadliest spin pairing in the world, but Sri Lanka had the players to push them far harder.

Of course, it does not help when you are not allowed your best side. In the end, the omission of Sanath Jayasuriya stands out as the biggest blunder, a terrible decision despite a fighting 47 from Upul Tharanga in the last innings. Instead of opening for Sri Lanka Jayasuriya has spent the last few weeks shredding local bowlers in domestic cricket - what a waste. Russel Arnold, too, should have been in India.

The biggest concern is that Atapattu and Tom Moody, both most visibly accountable for the team's performance, appear not to be properly consulted over selection. When Moody arrived the interim committee promised him the necessary powers to push through his policies and build the team. The chairman of selectors, Lalith Kaluperuma, also assured the media that the selectors would be supportive.

The reality appears to be indifference to the views of the captain and the coach. Atapattu has even publicly confirmed that he was not even consulted about Jayasuriya's omission for the Test series. Judging by the ODI squad for New Zealand and Australia, which includes the sacking of Upul Chandana and Nuwan Zoysa, two of Sri Lanka's chief wicket-takers last year, communication is a major problem.

Despite appearing to be struggling with a slight injury, Murali excelled throughout © AFP

There is now a crisis of confidence in the selectors, from the players right down to average the cricket-lover in the street. The four-man committee, headed by Lalith Kaluperuma and appointed by the Sports Minister, appear to have no obvious plan and there are serious concerns about the capability of two selectors in particular, KM Nelson and Shabbir Asgerally, who have limited cricketing pedigree.

The resignation of Pramodya Wickramasinghe from the selection committee a few months back, again because of work commitments, appears to have unbalanced the committee, leaving Don Anurasiri, a former Sri Lankan spinner who is well-respected, to fend for himself. Kaluperuma is considered a shrewd judge, but there have been increasing concerns about his impartiality.

As it is clear that the selectors are not going to take responsibility and resign, as they should, the Sports Minister should act fast to help get Sri Lanka back on track. The next panel are due to be appointed around March but there is a strong case for moving now. There are some fine potential selectors available, including former players that have excelled at the highest level and have the credentials.

There have been media rumours of an inquiry into the India debacle, especially after a Sunday Times report last weekend citing tensions within the team. If there is, the first door that should be knocked is the selectors'. They have much to answer for. If their decision-making was the result of political interference, as some fear but no one can prove, then the beans need to be spilt.

But while the selectors erred badly, the players have to shoulder their share of the blame for such a rudderless demise. While Sri Lanka were unfortunate at times, losing their two frontline fast bowlers to a virus, and most notably with with a VVS Laxman reprieve when India were on the ropes in Ahmedabad, they were culpable of throwing away strong positions throughout the last two Tests.

In Delhi, Muralitharan established a potential winning platform with a sensational display of offspin - one of his very best with the ball kicking both ways, the Indians no longer able to consistently decode his doosra, now deadlier with his ability to bowl with or without a scrambled seam - but the batsmen squandered the Test match in what Moody later referred as "30 minutes of madness".

There was another late-in-the-day collapse as the team was fighting an unlikely rearguard on the fourth evening. The sudden rush of wickets in both instances, whether the result of a loss of concentration or mental frailty, unravelled hours of hardwork in a flash, condemning the side to a heavy defeat in what had ironically been a closely-fought match.

In the final Test, Sri Lanka were guilty of letting India off the hook - reeling at 97 for 5 but allowed to escape. An umpiring blunder assisted their fightback, as did the bowlers, losing their discipline during the final session of play. Atapattu, too, may look back and wish he'd moved more aggressively for the kill, like India did later in the match with an army of fielders hovering close to the bat.

Kumar Sangakkara's inability to make a big score hurt Sri Lanka © AFP

All in all, the bowlers came of the tour with the most credit. Muralitharan, despite appearing to be struggling with a slight injury, excelled throughout and with runs on the board would sure have been a matchwinner. Chaminda Vaas, badly missed in the last game, also provided solid support after rediscovering form with some adjustments to his run-up in between the one-day and Test series.

Of the others, Malinga Bandara showed some poise and promise without ever threatening a great deal - although there is clearly talent to be worked on. Dilhara Fernando was steadier than he has ever been, belying his early reputation for being a spray gun, but did not look penetrative. Lasith Malinga, meanwhile, showed his attacking potential once again and Farveez Maharoof also acquitted himself well.

The batting, though, was a major disappointment. Only Mahela Jayawardene (four fifties in five innings) and Marvan Atapattu showed consistent form and their departures invariably singled a sea-change in the match. Indeed, while both showing the skill, patience and determination necessary to score against India's spinners, both will look back ruefully, kicking themselves for not turning such solid platforms into matchwinning centuries.

Tillakaratne Dilshan found his feet towards the end of the tour, but Kumar Sangakkara, now such a crucial cog in the line-up, had a disappointing series, battling hard for long periods but not converting. Again, the argument over whether his burden is too heavy as wicketkeeper and No.3, will be revived. It is a difficult question to answer because he loves both jobs.

Avishka Gunawardene and Jehan Mubarak simply looked out of their depth. Thilan Samaraweera's series nose-dived after a gritty innings in Chennai. At least Upul Tharanga provided something to cheer at the death with a battling 47 that showed some resilience and more reason to invest in his potential.

The India tour now leaves Sri Lanka with a tricky few months. There will be no opportunity to pick-up confidence at home as a three-day Christmas will be followed by seven weeks on the road in New Zealand and Australia. The VB Series, against the best team in the world and a resurgent South African side, will be particularly tough with some reputations now on the line.

For Atapattu it will be a revealing time. Since taking full captaincy responsibility in April 2004 he has generally impressed, pulling the team together and showed a calm leadership on the field. But in the last few months he has become more reactive and defensive. A few doubts have emerged and he now faces the first real test of his leadership, a test that he must pass to continue until the 2007 World Cup.

Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent