November 21, 2007

Underdone and overwhelmed

Little went right for Sri Lanka on the tour of Australia, but a tough tour would have prepared them well for the series against England



'Happens to the best, mate': for a visiting team to upset Australia they need to be at the top of their games © Getty Images

Sri Lanka have claimed themselves to be better international travellers outside the subcontinent in recent times. There has been justification for this claim, too, with Test wins in both England and New Zealand during 2006. However, sadly, there remains a severe travel warning for Australian tours: Sri Lanka have progressed significantly during the past two years, but they remain a long way off the standard required to take on the world champions on their turf.

Sri Lanka travelled with arguably the strongest bowling unit in their 26-year history, an attack with great variety, which had the potential to unsettle Australia's batsmen. However, to do so they all had to be at the top of their games, like England's seam attack during the epic Ashes contest in 2005. They weren¹t.

Dilhara Fernando blew hot and cold, mixing good, penetrative spells with wayward ones; Chaminda Vaas lacked pace and swing; Farveez Maharoof, the best of the seamers, was accurate and unfortunate, but ultimately wicketless too; Lasith Malinga burned brightly at the start of the second Test but was also too wayward and ill disciplined.

The only bowler to perform well was Muttiah Muralitharan. However, his task was made harder by the runs that leaked away easily at the other end, the fact that he was bowling in the first innings in both games, and the fact that his colleagues appeared incapable of catching anything other than the simplest of dollies. During the first day at the Gabba no less than three catches were dropped off his bowling, including Phil Jaques and Mike Hussey, both of who capitalised with centuries.

The fielding standards achieved under Trevor Penney's guidance in 2006 and 2007 have dropped alarmingly. This is in part due to the fact that some of the best fielders - Tillakaratne Dilshan, Upul Tharanga - were not selected due to the returns of Marvan Atapattu and Thilan Samaraweera. Like Australia missed Andrew Symonds in the field, Sri Lanka lost their edge without Dilshan.

Like so many touring teams, Sri Lanka didn't help their cause with their selection at the Gabba. The omission of Malinga was a grave mistake. True, they were faced with a genuine dilemma because of Maharoof¹s rapid improvement over the last six months. Maharoof was the bowler of the tour and deserved his chance. Rightly, they wanted him included.

However, if they picked Maharoof, they had to leave out Vaas, a similar-style bowler, who has not taken a five-wicket haul for over two years and is now so slow that he can't bowl a bouncer or get reverse swing. While he may still be able to play a role on dusty home pitches, bowling cutters and cleverly varying his pace, he has become a weak link on true pitches overseas. Reluctant to drop a senior player nearing his 100th Test, the management - allegedly on the instruction of a selector - sacrificed a genuine wicket-taker, a bowler with one of the best-strike rates in the world.

The inconsistency of their bowlers, poor selection and ragged fielding left the batsman under enormous pressure in both Test matches. The loss of Kumar Sangakkara before the first Test, the cruellest of blows, only added to that pressure. The batting order was unstable, with three of the top six batsmen in Sri Lanka's last Test in August not playing in Brisbane - Tharanga, Dilshan and Sangakkara.

The recall of Atapattu would have been entirely sensible if it had happened weeks rather than days after the intervention of the sports minister, Gamini Lokuge, who pleaded with him to play. Atapattu did nothing wrong in the end; on the contrary he scrapped manfully, and appears to have been a positive influence in the dressing room, but all the uncertainty clouded Sri Lanka¹s preparations.

It also threw initial plans into disarray. Suddenly, instead of having one senior batsman opening the innings - Sanath Jayasuriya was only called up when Atapattu made himself unavailable - they now had two. Tharanga, one of Sri Lanka¹s brightest prospects, sat on the sidelines. In hindsight, considering the potential value of two matches against Australia in the long run, and despite his lean run recently, he should have played.

Vaas has not taken a five-wicket haul for over two years and is now so slow that he can¹t bowl a bouncer or get reverse swing. While he may still be able to play a role on dusty home pitches, bowling cutters and cleverly varying his pace, he has become a weak link on true pitches overseas

The middle order was also all at sea. Chamara Silva quite rightly tried to be positive, but he took it to the extreme, adopting an almost suicidal approach. His magnificent first hundred against New Zealand in late 2006 could not have been more different. There he was patient but positive. His shot selection was exemplary. Here he batted like a man without hope.

At the other extreme was Samaraweera in the first Test. Under huge pressure, being asked to resurrect his international career against the world's best team, he also found it difficult to find the right balance between attack and defence.

Fortunately for Sri Lanka the tour was not an outright disaster and they should easily be able to regroup in time for the England tour. Sangakkara's superb batting in the second Test will have buoyed spirits, as will have Mahela Jayawardene's hundred in the first innings. Yes, Sri Lanka will be bitterly disappointed because they really did believe they could challenge Australia. But they'll also realise that Australia, especially their batsmen and fast bowlers, played some exceptional cricket. Not many teams have visited in recent times and avoided defeat.

With the uncertainly over Atapattu's future now cleared, Sri Lanka have returned to see several fringe players all in prime form, among them Tharanga, Dilshan and Chamara Kapugedera. There is a really healthy competition for places for the first Test against England and selection will be tricky. This time, unlike in Australia, they must get it right.

Charlie Austin is Sri Lanka editor of Cricinfo