October 2, 2013

'If we make pitches for spin, our fast bowling stocks won't improve'

Pace bowlers in Sri Lanka are doomed until there is a change in attitude and in the first-class structure

When Sri Lanka arrived in Australia in 2012, they approached the first Test in Hobart with a peculiar but telling wish. "If the wicket has a bit in it, our fast bowlers have a chance against the Australian batsmen," Kumar Sangakkara said. "Pitches like that make fast bowlers really enthusiastic to play, and elevate guys who don't have much pace."

Five years earlier, when Muttiah Muralitharan was Sri Lanka's top gun on tour, Sangakkara might not have dreamt he'd be hoping for a fast bowler's pitch in Australia.

There were no greentops for Sri Lanka in 2012, though, and while Rodney Hogg's appraisal of the visiting pace attack as the worst to ever tour Down Under was founded on nothing more than cursory research, Sri Lanka's fast men did not manage a performance to prove Hogg completely misguided either. Rangana Herath outbowled Sri Lanka's seamers by a distance on pitches that suited the Australian quicks. On their biggest tour in years, Sri Lanka's attack had been brutally exposed in the land of pace and bounce. They were thumped more severely than many expected.

Murali's retirement in 2010 came amid grave concern over who could possibly carry his slow-bowling cross, but Chaminda Vaas' departure a year earlier should perhaps have been cause for more worry. Sri Lanka's domestic arrangement has long been suited to producing good-quality spin options for the top level, but there has never been an abundance of polished fast bowlers on the island.

In 2013 that scarcity shows no sign of abating. A promising few have formed a battery that Vaas, now the national fast bowling coach, is charged with turning into a match-winning group, but below them there are few who might challenge for places in the top team.

Even the talent that has been identified is of the unvarnished variety. Of Suranga Lakmal, Dhammika Prasad, Shaminda Eranga and Nuwan Pradeep, only Eranga has a Test average just below 40. None of them have played 15 Tests, and with the injury-prone Chanaka Welegedara now seemingly jettisoned, there is no figure that might serve as an on-field mentor, should a bowler begin to ail.

It is a singular dearth for Sri Lanka, who have strode forward in almost every other aspect in 31 years of Test cricket. Two batsmen have now gone past 10,000 Test runs, and a third, Aravinda de Silva, might also lay claim to batting greatness. In Murali and Herath, Sri Lanka have had spinners who have been the best in the world at their craft at some point in their careers - by ranking, if not always by consensus. They have also often been the best fielding team in Asia. Yet only one of their fast bowlers has enjoyed a laudable Test career.

"I think one of the biggest issues is the pitches in our domestic cricket," says Vaas, who began his work with the Sri Lankan team in March. "Many times it's very difficult for fast bowlers to get anything out of the surface, but the spinners thrive. If we continue to make pitches just for spin, our fast bowling stocks aren't going to improve."

Vaas' contention about local pitches could hardly be borne out more plainly in first-class cricket. Each of the 14 top wicket-takers in this year's Premier League tournament is a slow bowler. In the top 20, only two bowl fast. For many teams, it has been common practice for spinners to take the new ball in the second innings, when quicks become a speculative plan B at best, or entirely superfluous at worst. It's worth noting too that unlike in almost every other Test-playing nation, first-class cricket in Sri Lanka is only a three-day pursuit, yet wearing surfaces feature as a matter of routine.

"Apart from trying to get some good bounce, sometimes there's not much else you can do - the ball doesn't move. It's easy to wonder if you wouldn't be better off doing something else"
Shaminda Eranga

"You have to really struggle, and I think as a fast-bowling group in Sri Lanka, we all know and experience that," says Eranga. "In a given match you might be effective for the first one or two hours, but after that the spinners have a better chance of taking wickets. Apart from trying to get some good bounce, sometimes there's not much else you can do - the ball doesn't move. You have to really push yourself to make something happen, and when you do that, you can get injured. It's easy to wonder if you wouldn't be better off doing something else."

A bloated first-class structure has rightly been blamed for diluting talent and broadening the chasm between domestic and Test cricket, but it is also largely responsible for making Sri Lanka a seam bowler's graveyard, says former Test bowler Champaka Ramanayake, who has coached in Sri Lanka for well over a decade. Of the 20 first-class clubs, only about half have home venues. The same squares are played on weekly during the domestic season, reducing many of them to dustbowls just a few weeks into the competition.

"It's tough on our curators, and it's hard to blame them," says Ramanayake. "In a two-month first-class tournament, they might play eight or nine three-day matches on the same square, in addition to the practices for one or two teams a week. Even in our schools system, the pitches are overused. Many schools don't have a ground, so a lot of them hire the same venues for matches. From a young age it's much better for the spinners than the fast bowlers."

Watching slow bowlers scythe through sides, while being sapped by Colombo's heat and humidity, can often be debilitating psychologically, Eranga says. You exert more energy than any other player on the field but reap the leanest profit. Going to practice becomes a chore, and inspiration is hard to come by, when week after week, playing in the XI means justifying your place in the side.

"One of the most important things as a coach is building our fast bowlers back up again mentally," Vaas says. "You have to get them to the right psychological space from where they can begin to learn the other things that will make them good fast bowlers. That is not something they often learn in domestic cricket. They get discouraged quickly and find it hard to develop into thinking bowlers who know how to back batsmen into a corner and force a mistake."

In addition to lacking lessons in application, the benefits of honing long-form skills are also unclear for domestic fast bowlers. New deliveries are introduced into an ever-expanding wheelhouse at the expense of Test-match virtues and temperament. Spells are short and sparse, so the temptation to strike quickly with a new-fangled surprise ball seems preferable to bowling tight spells and working batsmen out, says Ramanayake. Dilhara Fernando's split-finger slower ball is virtually impossible to pick, but he has mastered neither the movement nor the discipline that might have seen him succeed in Tests.

"They learn a lot of variations, because that's the only way to get wickets," Ramanayake says. "That's why we do well in ODIs, where variations help. They don't use seam movement or swing to get wickets, because there is nothing off the surface. Those are the skills you need for Tests. When they get to a higher level, they need to learn all those things. That takes time."

Sri Lanka's young fast bowlers must acquire new skills to become an international threat. Vaas' cutters and slower balls deceived batsmen in ODIs, but in Tests he was foremost a disciple of swing, seam and reverse swing, which he allied with uncompromising accuracy and adaptive cunning. He was the king of the long con: setting a batsman up for several overs - sometimes across spells - before swindling him with one that seamed the other way or held its line. As Sri Lanka's bowlers often arrive with neither the ability nor the nous to adhere to such a blueprint, there is also no guarantee that men who take wickets in first-class cricket can become successful in internationals. This in turn flummoxes the selection process.

"You almost have to begin learning again when you get to the Sri Lanka team, because there is such a huge difference between playing domestic cricket and international cricket," Eranga says. "The quality of the batsmen you are playing against is much higher. They are much more proficient against fast bowling, and you have to do different things to get them out. Being consistent and doing something with the ball are crucial."

Sri Lanka Cricket has worked to improve the quality of competition by relegating six teams from the first-class tournament, but that step is unlikely to alleviate the burden on the first-class grounds. The new second-tier tournament that the relegated teams form is set to be played at the same venues, in tandem with the premier competition.

There are no plans to ease ground scarcity from the supply end either. The board cannot afford to invest in first-class venues, having run its finances into the dirt building grand stadiums in Pallekele and Hambantota. Both venues boast world-class facilities, but neither is close enough to the Colombo cricket epicentre to be a viable first-class ground.

When Sri Lanka returned from Australia this year, Angelo Mathews inherited the Test captaincy and set a top-three ranking in Tests as a primary goal for his tenure. With away tours to England and New Zealand in the next 18 months, he will require his pace attack to develop quickly if he is to lift the side from its current seventh spot. For seam bowling's long-term future, though, the administration is yet to offer a compelling solution. As it has been now for decades, Sri Lanka conspires to remain no country for fast men.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here