Tillakaratne prepares to face the inevitable
Australia's victory in the second Test at Kandy sealed the series, and in all likelihood signalled the end of Hashan Tillakaratne's interim tenure as Sri Lanka's Test captain.
Tillakaratne acknowledged as much on the eve of the final Test in Colombo. "It does not bother me whether I remain as captain for the next series," he told reporters. "If I am stepping down, I just want to go on a high note and try and perform at my level best."
Even before this series started, Tillakaratne was under immense pressure, despite last season's victory over England. The selectors made it clear that Marvan Atapattu, already the one-day captain, was the heir apparent, and that his time was near. Next month's tour of Zimbabwe provides an ideal low-key handover series, and even victory against Australia might not have been enough to prevent a change at the helm.
The experiment with a stopgap leader was a failure, a decision that has hampered Sri Lanka's development since the World Cup. In nine Tests, Sri Lanka have won only once, and that was against a weak England side missing their top-flight bowlers. Seven of those Tests have been played on home soil, too, on pitches that have offered Muttiah Muralitharan bountiful assistance.
More enterprising and aggressive leadership might have won several of those matches. But, at crunch times, Sri Lanka let opponents off the hook. Rather than taking the game by the scruff of the neck and ramping up the pressure, they sat back and waited for mistakes. A fear of losing has permeated Sri Lanka's cricket and, for that, Tillakaratne must shoulder some of the blame.
Tillakaratne is a gritty and determined cricketer, a man who loves nothing more than a backs-to-the-wall dogfight. But his batting has always been characterised by a safety-first, defensive approach. He has admirable patience and powers of concentration, but his batting is limited by a reluctance to confront. He will wait all day for a bad ball rather than create scoring opportunities by turning up the pressure on bowlers. As a result, he is rarely a matchwinner. He provides a useful plug in the middle order and a counterpoint to the normal flair in the team, but he will not change the course of a match.
To expect Tillakaratne to be a natural leader was unreasonable and unjustifiable. For sure, he has a shrewd cricket brain. But he lacks the necessary self-belief in his strategies. He hedges his bets and procrastinates, which confuses his field-placings and bowling changes. Australia's batsmen soon realised how easy it was for them to force a fielding change with a calculated gamble or two, and they have capitalised on that throughout the series, pushing Sri Lanka back onto the defensive and then milking runs.
Tactics aside, Tillakaratne is not a man who radiates positive vibes. When the confidence of Sri Lanka's players dipped during 2003, they desperately needed a bold leader and team builder. They needed someone to inspire them to broaden their horizons and believe in their ability. They yearned for a captain who made the impossible seem possible. Unfortunately, they were saddled with someone who was plagued by his own fears.
In fairness, Tillakaratne was carrying out orders, and it is the selectors who have most to answer for. There was no need for an interim leader in the first place. Atapattu had been primed for the job for four years. He was 32 and looking forward to the responsibility when, to widespread surprise, the selectors announced that they were going to spilt the one-day and Test captaincies. The public justification was that they wanted to ease Atapattu into the job and help protect the productivity of his batting. But, for Atapattu, it was a slap in the face and a vote of no-confidence. Suddenly, he was under more pressure than he would have been had he taken over both jobs.
Tillakaratne has been a victim too. His return to the Test team in 2001-02 was prolific, but the extra responsibility of captaincy has derailed his batting. A career average of 42.41 slips to 29.20 when he is captain, and in the last five Tests he averages only 17.66. Although he's still fit for a 36-year-old, his future as a Test batsman isn't assured when he is replaced. Fortunately for him, though, there is precious little younger talent pushing hard for places, and he should be able to bat on for a while.
The reunification of the captaincy cannot be delayed any longer. Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara would both make good leaders, but they have enough on their plates and are men for the future. Atapattu must assume the leadership, and he can be expected to do a decent job. He has already shown that he will be positive and innovative in his approach and, crucially, he will be straight-talking and fair in the dressing-room. Tillakaratne did his best, but he was the wrong man.
Charlie Austin is Wisden Cricinfo's Sri Lankan editor.