December 8, 2009

Sri Lanka need to be mentally stronger

If Sri Lanka aspire to be No.1, they need to be stronger in the mind and maintain high standards when the going gets tough

The end result for Sri Lanka does not make pretty reading. A series they had genuine hopes of winning ended in a comprehensive 0-2 defeat. The quest for a maiden win in India remained unfulfilled once more. The No. 2 Test ranking was sacrificed, as India clambered up to the top of the pile. No doubt the critics back home will start hammering the team. But, from a Sri Lankan point of view, what does it all mean?

Kumar Sangakkara will bear the brunt of the criticism. As captain, that is the harsh reality of leadership and it will be tough for him. Some criticism is fair. Yes, Sri Lanka were outplayed in the last two Tests. They also wasted a prime opportunity to take the upper-hand in the first Test. The tactics were at times, especially in the second Test, difficult to understand. The fielding was extremely poor.

But there is such a fine line between success and failure. When analysing the Tests we need some perspective. There were several factors beyond Sangakkara's control. For starters, his preferred pace attack of Thilan Thushara and Dammika Prasad, both men capable of sustaining pace in excess of 140kmph, did not even make it onto the starting grid due to injuries.

Losing the toss in the second Test was a mighty blow. A bigger blow, though, was the quality of umpiring and the fact that Sri Lanka were given no leeway whatsoever. The run of the green consistently fell in India's favour, often at critical moments. Tillakaratne Dilshan's dismissals in the final Test were the most graphic examples, but far from the only case.

It's tough when you create opportunities against such high-class opposition and things don't fall your way. However, I have to say I was immensely proud of the way the Sri Lankan players behaved in the face of their cruel luck. They had every right to be disappointed, but they did not let their frustrations boil over; they kept their emotions in-check and plugged away as best they could.

The injuries, lost tosses and poor umpiring are not excuses, but they are important factors. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka will also rue several missed opportunities, the first of these being the first innings in Mumbai after Sangakkara won an important toss. The first session went well with Dilshan showing superb footwork and Tharanga Paranavitana batting extremely well.

In the middle, though, Sri Lanka let India into the game with some soft dismissals. Paranavitana will be disappointed to have wasted another good start and Mahela Jayawardene will be furious for being caught off the hook on 29. Considering his brilliant form and the quality of the pitch, he would have been determined to score one of his trademark big hundreds.

I watched him [Sehwag] in the run-up to the game and it was fascinating to see how watchful he was in the nets, trying to get behind the ball and overcome the technical weakness outside off stump exposed by Sri Lanka's quicks in the first two Tests

When Dilshan got a shocker, things could easily have crashed completely. However, Angelo Mathews reacted to the situation brilliantly. He is a naturally positive player with bags of flair. I think he is right to play in the same vein in Test cricket but he needs to work on his shot selection and pick the right balls to hit. Dilshan's departure, though, settled him.

With Prasanna (Jayawardene) providing solid support, Sri Lanka got themselves right back in the game. In fact, as the new ball neared, India were right on the back foot. Had Mathews and Prasanna batted on another 20 overs, things would have been very different. Tragically, though, off the last ball of the 80th over, Prasanna danced down the track and was caught at mid-on.

It turned out to be a killer blow. Sri Lanka were unfortunate to be robbed of Dilshan in full flow, but despite that setback they had a chance to take the game by the scruff of the neck. That opportunity was squandered. Instead of capitalising on the toss, Sri Lanka effectively gifted India the best batting conditions.

The Indian innings, meanwhile, was all about Virender Sehwag. His innings was truly magnificent. The key was the way he handled himself early on. I watched him in the run-up to the game and it was fascinating to see how watchful he was in the nets, trying to get behind the ball and overcome the technical weakness outside off stump exposed by Sri Lanka's quicks in the first two Tests.

In both the first and second Tests he edged early to the slips and was dropped. It was a well-laid plan by Sri Lanka. However, the failure to capitalise on those chances had a huge cost. By the third Test, Sehwag was super-confident. He negotiated his way through the opening overs expertly and then ruthlessly attacked Sri Lanka's spinners.

It is a very rare thing to see batting of that class and quality. It was unbelievable, and definitely the best innings I have seen. The only innings that comes close was perhaps Adam Gilchrist's century in the 2007 World Cup final. I actually thought the discipline and attitude of Sri Lanka in the field was much better than Kanpur, as the bowlers kept plugging away. But Sehwag was unstoppable and all the other Indian batsmen were able to feed off that innings.

Sri Lanka were understandably shell-shocked after the second day's play but they came back well on the third morning, creating chances. With a bit more luck from the umpiring they might still have restricted India to a lead of manageable proportions, something around the 150 to 200 mark. Unfortunately, the fielding started to cost Sri Lanka heavily on the third day.

The fielding was in fact a big problem throughout the series. Even Dilshan, Sri Lanka's best fielder, was pretty poor. It's difficult to understand why, as they were working hard on the fielding (arguably too hard as some of the practice sessions were three to four hours long). The big problem is that apart from Dilshan, Mahela and Nuwan Kulasekara in the outfield, Sri Lanka lacks exceptional fielders now.

Faced with such a large deficit it was always going to be tough in the second innings. Dilshan's second unfortunate dismissal did not help Sri Lanka's cause, but Paranavitana batted even better in the second innings and Sangakkara finally showed the class we all know he has. His balance was excellent, he played with a full face of the bat and he picked the gaps beautifully. He was tentative in earlier innings with a couple of careless dismissals suggested the weight of responsibility was disrupting his normal focus. But eventually, he clicked into his zone.

Credit to India's fast bowlers, though. Sreesanth exploited Paranavitana's trigger movement across the stumps - a weakness he must address at this level - with a perfectly pitched inswinger and Zaheer Khan bowled a superb spell. From nothing Zaheer created opportunities, working the angles and getting a smidgen of movement. He created enough pressure to make the batsman tentative and snared Sri Lanka's two most prolific Test batsmen, Mahela and Thilan (Samaraweera).

It was high-class fast bowling, the kind of intelligent effort that Chaminda Vaas at his prime was able to conjure up on the most lifeless of pitches. India's quicks showed what could be extracted from the pitch and they clearly out-bowled Sri Lanka's pace attack. Sri Lanka has plenty of emerging bowling talent, but the pace bowlers need domestic cricket to provide a greater challenge. Right now they are learning in Test cricket and that's a huge risk. The Sri Lankan seam attack can be very good in favourable conditions, as we saw against New Zealand and Pakistan earlier in the year, but to be truly world-class you need to be able threaten even on unfavourable surfaces.

So the end of tour report will have few glowing reviews. Rangana (Herath) was excellent and very unlucky. Dilshan batted extremely well in two innings and was also unlucky. Mahela was brilliant in Ahmedabad, unfortunate in Kanpur, disappointing in Mumbai. Paranavitana showed signs of emerging, but needs to convert more. Prasanna's batting matured, but his wicket-keeping standards slipped badly.

All in all, a very tough tour, although no need for major panic in my opinion. Sri Lanka still has a good combination of players. There is great potential for this team. They just need to work on being a bit stronger in the mind so that they can maintain high standards when the going gets tough. That's easier said than done, but if Sri Lanka aspires to being No.1 in the world then that's the area that needs to be worked on.

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