November 29, 2009

Murali and Mendis need to attack

The defining aspect of Sri Lanka's performance in the series has been the defensive mindset of their lead spinners, both of whom seem to have a confidence problem

From Sri Lanka's perspective, the second Test could hardly have been more disappointing. They travelled to India with a great deal of expectation and hope, with a team of undoubted quality. In Kanpur, though, they were comprehensively outplayed. It was their poorest Test performance for a long time.

Losing is one thing, but the manner in which the team wilted was alarming. The lack of fight was deeply worrying. After failing to force a win in Ahmedabad in the first Test, it was crucial to get the energy levels high and hit India hard, but when things did not go Sri Lanka's way on the first morning, they went flat fast.

The toss was undoubtedly important. The players all knew that day one was going to be the best day for batting before it started to turn. The loss of the toss was made worse by a spilled catch off Sehwag in the first over and then a very good lbw shout that was turned down. The team's disappointment was understandable, but their reaction was not: heads went down and the negative body language betrayed the evaporating self-belief.

Full credit to India's batsmen; I thought they were superb. They carried the attack to the Sri Lankan spinners, using their feet expertly and seizing on any scoring opportunity. They were aggressive and positive and the slow bowlers were put under a huge amount of pressure. The failure of the spinners to control the game pushed Sri Lanka out of their comfort zone.

After India had got off to a flying start, I was surprised Sri Lanka did not try to clamp down on the run rate with some old-fashioned boring cricket. India were allowed to score too quickly. With more restrictive tactics and field placements, especially against new batsmen, the run rate could have been kept down on the opening day, and that would at least have left Sri Lanka breathing. As it was, the runs were plundered so quickly that the Sri Lanka batting was placed under enormous pressure.

While there seems little doubt that Murali is past his peak, he is still the kingpin of Sri Lanka's attack. For me, the main issue is that he seems low on confidence. There are signs of self-doubt, and the end result is that he has lost a bit of zip. However, I still believe that if he is able to gather himself together mentally and trust and believe in himself, he will bounce back.

Ajantha Mendis was pretty flat and it is fair to say a lot more was expected from him. He needs to shift gears now because players are reading him. He was different and special at the beginning of his career, but batsmen are countering him now. He needs to rise to the challenge, keep his belief and be smarter. He needs more variations while still doing the basics well.

Credit to Rangana Herath. I thought he showed a lot of mental strength. The Indian batsmen understood the threat he posed and they went after him to try and prevent him settling. However, he kept tossing the ball up and sticking to his strengths. When the ball did start to grip on day two, as the pitch started wearing, batting became a different ball game against him.

The three-spinner strategy was not the success that Sri Lanka would have hoped for, but I don't believe it was the wrong tactic. If fewer runs had been conceded on the first day, and if Sri Lanka had pushed India into a second innings then they could really have had an impact.

The main issue for me has been that the spinners, particularly Murali and Ajantha, are not playing with the same confidence that we are used to seeing from them. They are both on the back foot and thinking defensively at a time when Sri Lanka needs them to have a spring in their step. They both need to trust their talent and go out there with a far more positive mindset.

The management are left with a difficult decision as they select the attack for the Mumbai Test. With Dammika Prasad fit again, they might be inclined to revert to two spinners, and that means making a choice between Murali and Ajantha. Murali is obviously the favourite but the final call has to be made after assessing his state of mind.

Like Sachin Tendulkar frustrated the Sri Lankans on the final day in Ahmedabad, visibly upsetting some of them, Sri Lanka might at least have frustrated India in Kanpur, and thereby clawed back some of the momentum in a mental battle they started losing in the first Test

The batting was also a disappointment for Sri Lanka, although the top order was always under pressure after India was allowed to amass such a mountainous score. In such circumstances you need to just bat without worrying about the scoreboard or time. That, of course, is easier said than done, and in this game the top order did not handle the situation well. Mistakes were made under stress and some of the main batsmen were made to look very ordinary.

In the second innings Sri Lanka should have put up a stronger fight. While batting was harder than on the first day, there were no great terrors in the track even on the fourth day, and I thought India could have been made to work far harder for their victory. Like Sachin Tendulkar frustrated the Sri Lankans on the final day in Ahmedabad, visibly upsetting some of them, Sri Lanka might at least have frustrated India and thereby clawed back some of the momentum in a mental battle they started losing when they failed to trample on India on the evening of the third day and on the fourth morning in the first Test.

The management will also now need to assess whether a change needs to be made to the opening combination. Tharanga Paranavitana has now played nine Test matches but needs to begin making the big hundreds he scores in domestic cricket. In all of his last four innings he has been dismissed between 20 and 38, failing to capitalise on good starts.

Thilina Kandamby is an excellent player, but I think he is better suited to the middle order, where his strength against the spinners will be very useful. Kamdamby could be included by pushing Prasanna Jayawardene up to the opener's slot, but that is a tough ask, considering Prasanna has his wicketkeeping duties as well, so I would seriously consider a debut for Kaushal Silva, who although a wicketkeeper is also a top-class bat.

Whatever the selection, the key to levelling the series in Mumbai will be the way the team reacts to this defeat. A first series win is now impossible, but Sri Lanka cannot let that deflate them. The ability to bounce back in such circumstances is a hallmark of great teams, and squaring the series would be a major achievement. Sri Lanka definitely has the potential, but they need to be far more combative and mentally strong. They need to play with pride, purpose and unshakeable self-belief.

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