November 22, 2009

Sri Lanka took their foot off the gas

There was a noticeable lack of intent from the visitors, especially on the third evening and fourth morning

The first Test started with three good days of hard-fought cricket before sadly fizzling out. This was primarily because the pitch was so docile, but I also think Sri Lanka could have shown greater positive intent. They showed they could compete, took the fight to India and displayed a lot of character, but they will travel to Kanpur ruing a missed opportunity.

The lack of intent was most pronounced on the third evening and fourth morning. Sri Lanka were in the driving seat after Mahela Jayawardene's magnificent hundred, but hesitated at a time when they should have been turning the screws. By the end of day three they should have been 200 runs ahead, and on the fourth morning they could have pushed on faster.

It was not easy to score quickly once India decided to bowl negatively - Amit Mishra bowling around the wicket into the rough outside leg stump - but Sri Lanka could have picked up more runs. Mahela was understandably tired and needed to stay there to hold together the innings, but Prasanna Jayawardene could have taken some risks and been more positive. Instead, they went into their shells and lost momentum.

I thought both captains were a little too defensive and reactive through much of the Test match. Batsmen dictated terms and were allowed to pick up singles too easily. It felt like the fielding side were not sticking to specific plans and were being dictated to by the batsmen. Of course, on such a easy batting surface, that can often be the case.

Sri Lanka were better on the fifth day, though, bowling better lines and employing well-though-out fields. Angelo Mathews bowled a terrific spell in the morning, keeping a tight line on one side of the wicket, and Rangana Herath was encouraging the batsmen to drive, and therefore looking much more likely to take wickets, albeit at the cost of a few boundaries.

There was no doubt that Murali lacked his normal energy and had a poor game by his own exceptional standards. He looked like he was trying too hard, experimenting with lots of variations and therefore bowling an unusual number of loose deliveries. At his best, Murali is more patient, suffocating batsmen and using his variations sparingly. Knowing him, he won't look back very happily on his 63 overs in Ahmedabad, but Sri Lanka shouldn't be panicking that he had an average game. Sure, he looks a little low in confidence right now and he might be past his peak as a great bowler, but he remains Sri Lanka's main go-to bowler and still has a huge amount to offer.

The Kanpur Test-match pitch offered plenty of spin in last year's India v South Africa Test, so it might be the perfect chance for Murali to regain his best form after his recent injuries. He just needs a few things to go his way, a bit of good fortune, and he will be a big threat again. Sri Lanka certainly needs his vast experience in the next two games.

The big decision will be who should be Murali's spin partner in Kanpur. At the start of the first Test I agreed with the decision to go with Rangana Herath on the basis of form. But with the benefit of hindsight, I think Sri Lanka did miss Ajantha Mendis. History tells us that the most successful spinners in India have been the quickish ones - the likes of Anil Kumble, Derek Underwood and Richie Benaud. Mendis is similar in style and may be the better bet for the conditions.

Sri Lanka will also need to choose a replacement for Dammika Prasad. He bowled with a lot of heart and showed great attitude right through the match, even if he was a little inconsistent with his direction. Unfortunately, though, he has a grade-one hamstring tear - sustained while trying to stop a ball football-style in the deep, a dangerous technique used by a few of the Sri Lanka outfielders - which means he is very doubtful for Kanpur.

I think Sri Lanka did miss Ajantha Mendis. History tells us that the most successful spinners in India have been the quickish ones - the likes of Anil Kumble, Derek Underwood and Richie Benaud

My gut feeling is that the team management will opt for Dilhara Fernando, who was rushed to India this week as a replacement for Thilan Thushara, ahead of Nuwan Kulasekara. Nuwan bowled really well in Sri Lanka recently but on these Indian pitches I think Sanga will want the extra pace of Fernando, who I understand has been bowling with great rhythm recently. Angelo will have to perform the Kulasekara role as a steady stock bowler.

There were a couple of key moments in the game that Sri Lanka might look back with regret at now. Their bowlers lost focus after the fall of early wickets. The pace bowlers bowled a really good length early on to make inroads, but then bowled a little too full as they went for the kill, allowing Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh to consolidate.

In addition, Dilshan and Sanga will have been very disappointed to have thrown their wickets away like they did. In the end, they were lucky that Mahela and Thilan Samaraweera were able to keep them on track.

Finally, after Prasanna's long innings he was clearly drained, and perhaps with hindsight Sanga should have taken the gloves for the start of the innings. He may have grabbed the early chance off Sehwag.

Sri Lanka will be delighted with the batting of Prasanna. He looked slightly nervous at the start of his innings but Mahela calmed him down and helped him along. Prasanna sometimes needs a person like Mahela at the other end because while he is a good bat he does have a tendency to panic, which is betrayed by the fact that he tries to hit loose balls too hard. However, this century will give him confidence.

On balance, neither team will carry forward a psychological advantage. The positive for Sri Lanka is that they know they can compete and do have a chance of winning their first series in India. However, they have to start from scratch, having missed a chance in Ahmedabad. Getting their minds right and energy levels up will not be easy. It will be a real test for Sanga's motivational skills.

Russel Arnold played 44 Tests and 180 ODIs for Sri Lanka between 1997 and 2007

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