'Clarke will use his spinners well in Sri Lanka'
Australia and Sri Lanka seem destined to meet each other in times of change. The last Australian tour there, in 2004, was Ricky Ponting's first as Test captain, while Sri Lanka's most recent visit to Australia for Tests in 2007 was the home side's first series since the retirements of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer. This time Michael Clarke leads Australia on a Test tour for the first time, and faces a Sri Lankan side in a state of some transition under the recently minted captaincy of Tillakaratne Dilshan. Trevor Bayliss coached Sri Lanka to this year's World Cup final, before returning home to New South Wales. He ran his eye over the two sides as the Australian squad settled down in Colombo.
How do you view the challenge confronting Australia?
It's certainly going to be a test for Michael and the Australian team. Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka - they've got a very, very good record. Yes, they've got some younger players coming into the team, but those are very good players, and if you add home-ground advantage it is going to be a tough tour.
Things have certainly changed a lot since Sri Lanka's 2007 visit to Australia.
We only played two Tests. [Kumar] Sangakkara missed the first one - he did a hamstring in the warm-up match in Adelaide before that. So we missed quite possibly the best batter in the team in Brisbane and missed that experience and real class at No. 3. It is not an unknown fact that the Sri Lankans when they play away from home on bouncing, seaming wickets as Brisbane can be, it wasn't one of their favourite surfaces.
But in that match I didn't think we played particularly badly. I thought Australia batted extremely well. We had some plans for one or two of their batters, like Phil Jaques, who I'd been with at NSW not long before. We'd planned to keep the ball outside off stump, but they were just very watchful. I can't remember them playing and missing, they just left everything that wasn't in their zone to hit, and over a period time just wore us down. Some of the batters struggled on a bouncier wicket.
In the second Test, in Hobart, Sangakkara came back and made 190-odd in the second innings, Mahela [Jayawardene] scored a hundred in the first innings, both superb innings, but the Australians then were still at the top of their game and playing at home and very difficult to beat.
They were supremely confident at the time. Ricky Ponting spoke boldly of extending the gap between first and second even though a trio of greats had retired and more would follow.
Any team that's the No. 1 in the world is usually playing with pretty good confidence, and they were certainly doing that at the time. They still had some of the best players in the world, and to play anyone on their home ground with some of the best players in the world, and six or seven other very good players, it is going to be a difficult assignment, as I think Australia might find out on this tour to Sri Lanka this time round.
While you're obviously familiar with Sri Lanka, you also go back quite a distance with Michael Clarke?
He was the captain of the Under-19s NSW team I coached years ago, and right through there and obviously through his time in NSW. One of the things I think he will do well over there, with wickets favouring spin bowling... tactically I think he'll handle Australia's spinners very well, with the field placings. I think he'll use them pretty well. So that'll be interesting to see.
He will need to make runs with the bat to bolster the team and also his place in the side, having had a poor run over the past year - far from the best lead-in to captaincy.
He's probably the best Australian player of spin. He uses his feet, he's quick on his feet, and as long as he sticks to that way of playing, he can be successful in Sri Lanka. I'm sure as the Aussie captain he'll be out to do as well as he possibly can, not only for the performance of the team but to show people he's still got what it takes, and he is going to lead this team not only from the captaincy point of view but from his batting as well. I'm sure that's the type of thing that will motivate him, and I've no reason to think he won't do well in Sri Lanka.
How do the Sri Lankan players view Australia?
They realise Australia are not the team they used to be, but at the same time they know that when it comes to Australia it doesn't matter what team they put on the park - they're going to have to play some good cricket to win. They certainly won't be taking Australia lightly.
They're obviously led by two of the best batsmen in the world in Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, playing on their home turf. Add Thilan Samaraweera to that, who averages 54 in Test cricket and in the last two or three years has averaged 70-odd. Then there's [Tillakaratne] Dilshan, the new captain, who will want to do well, did well in the Test matches in England.
Sri Lanka's batting is a real strength, especially at home. Their top seven batters are all capable of scoring hundreds.
The bowling is in more of a transitional state, however.
Lasith Malinga's retired from Test cricket, Murali's now retired... theirs will be an inexperienced bowling attack but it certainly won't lack for skill. From a spin point of view, Rangana Herath has done extremely well in Test cricket and especially in Sri Lanka, he's gone through a few teams over there that were supposedly good players of spin. Pakistan he destroyed a couple of years ago. Suraj Randiv is the other spinner. Against India last year on a flat wicket at the SSC in Colombo he bowled something like 73 overs on debut, a record for a debut. He's a big turner of the ball and has got one that goes straight on, and he's an enthusiastic cricketer. You add Ajantha Mendis to that group of spinners and they could be a headache for Australia.
Mendis has a tendency to do well against teams catching their first sight of him, before levelling out as they become familiar with his eccentricities. Have Australia seen enough of him?
Australia have played Mendis in the [World] Twenty20 in the West Indies, and Cameron White hit him for a few runs, but the first two spinners they pick will be Randiv and Herath on current form. That doesn't mean Mendis won't play a part. It is a possibility [he will be chosen] against Australia because they haven't played him very much. Any of those three spinners could do some damage, and besides them there's another couple of spinners who could quite easily do well in international cricket.
Against spin you've got to be a bit more proactive, and try to put the pressure back onto the bowler, so it'll be interesting to see how Australia's batsmen go about facing the Sri Lankan spinners.
Australia's plan of attack to the Sri Lankan batsmen will have to be quite disciplined, won't it?
There are going to be some difficult times trying to get through the Sri Lankan batting order. You've got seven guys in the likely batting order to whom they're going to have to bowl very well, and there's going to be some hard work to get through those seven. Sangakkara and Jayawardene are the main stumbling blocks, and if you can get those two out of the way, it puts a lot of pressure on the rest of the batting order, though you can't take the rest of the guys lightly.
Who stands out to you as an Australia bowler who could have an impact?
From a pace point of view, someone like Ryan Harris could be dangerous. He is someone who bustles in, a bit quicker than what you think, but bowls a fairly consistent line and length, and can nip the ball about off the seam and through the air a bit. Early on with those wickets you get a little bit of swing and a little bit of seam, and someone who maybe skids onto the bat a bit quicker than what you think, and maybe nipping it back in - I think he could do well. Someone who can bowl reverse swing as well, when the ball is older.
What about the bowling of spin on those pitches? Is it the old subcontinental formula of landing it on the same spot over after over, with the pitch to provide the variation?
Consistency on any type of wicket is what you're after. From Australia's point of view, facing and bowling spin over there is a bit different to here because there's a lack of bounce. A ball that's not quite a good ball [here] is still a good ball over there because it might do something unpredictable, it might stay a bit low. In Australia if you drop it short the batter is able to get back and the ball bounces high enough that you can get after it, but in Sri Lanka you've got to be a little more careful, you've got to make sure it is a really bad ball before you try to go after it.
But at the same time you must put pressure on a bowler to bowl more of those balls. Like anywhere else in the world if you allow a bowler to dictate terms, he's going to be on top and put the ball where he wants and the fielders where he wants. That's going to be one of the battles of the Test series.
What of Dilshan? How did you view him as a batsman and a leader within your side?
As a player he is one of those guys you probably don't like playing against. He can rub the opposition up the wrong way at times, and sometime he does it on purpose as well. But he's a hell of a scrapper. He's a winner, he likes to win at everything. He's a very positive batter and he'll do his best to put pressure on the opposition in any way he can, and I'm sure his captaincy will be the same. In his batting sometimes you'd like to think he's going to knock the ball around and not get out for a while, but he's just as likely to come out and score a hundred off 90 balls. From a captaincy point of view he'll be positive, aggressive, and he's also got a couple of ex-captains in the team, who I'm sure will be a sounding board for him.
However accomplished their results, the Sri Lankans seem to retain the capacity to panic a little when pressure is brought to bear late in a match.
In any situation, in any team there can be panic when you lose wickets, especially when Mahela and Sangakkara get dismissed early. Another way of saying panic is pressure, and that it is brought on by pressure. One of the keys to Australia's success will be getting Sangakkara and Mahela out, which will then put a lot more pressure on the guys coming in behind them. That's no different to Australia losing Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke or Mike Hussey. International teams play each other so often these days, everyone is aware of that.
But Australia are going to have to be careful, because even if they get those guys out, the others have stood up to a fair bit in the past two years and done extremely well. You only have to look at the record to see one of the reasons Sri Lanka have done extremely well is that those lesser players have done well. If Australia aren't careful, just because you get through the best two players in the team, that doesn't guarantee success, especially with the batting order Sri Lanka have got at the moment.
Will there be anything notable about the pitches, or should we expect a succession of slow turners?
Unless there is a washout, there is nearly always a result in Galle, and a bit in it for batsmen and bowlers. Interestingly Kandy is a brand new wicket they had for the World Cup that the Australians haven't played on, and to be honest the Sri Lankans haven't played on it much either. It seemed to be a pretty good cricket wicket; probably compared to a lot of the other wickets in Sri Lanka there was more bounce. I wouldn't say it was fast like an Australian wicket, but in some of the games we played on it, it [had] a little bit in it for everyone. The SSC surface in Colombo is generally quite unforgiving.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo