SL need more Tests to nurture pace-bowling talents
In the Abu Dhabi desert,
though the pitch was still green,
so keenly Sri Lanka toiled,
but this fate was foreseen.
Sri Lanka have not played many Tests recently (as the batsmen had made abundantly clear on day one), but in their most recent away series in Australia, they had endured many days like the second day against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi. Days when the opposition lead expands almost as if it was a birthright. Days when even the rare good balls miss the edge, and the few chances that do come are squandered in the field or by the injudicious use of DRS. Days, in short, that should be expected of an attack featuring a spinner on debut, two fast bowlers with less than 15 Tests, a third seam-bowler whose average is in the mid-70s, all marshalled by a captain still in training.
In Australia, Rangana Herath had created opportunities, but although a long personal break from cricket did not alter his accuracy in Abu Dhabi, his wicket-taking plots were not at their insidious best. Pakistan were led by two good players of spin-bowling as well, and the surface remained as resistant to turn as its colour implied.
It would be glib to suggest Sri Lanka could have done so much better, but could they have, really? The fast men managed good lines through the day, and even moved the ball a little. There were no meltdowns, no maulings, no huge dips in intensity until late in the day. Angelo Mathews attacked and kept at least one slip throughout, even tricking Ahmed Shehzad into a rash stroke. Sachithra Senanayake had a few poor overs, but which rookie doesn't have a few of those on an unresponsive track? The truth that Sri Lanka must absorb and own completely if they are to avoid such days in future is: on pitches that aren't in Galle, they are just not very good.
The biggest feasible gains are to be made by the fast bowlers. Shaminda Eranga was miserly in the morning, conceding only eight runs from his six overs, but three more inches of movement and a better head for working batsmen out would take him from parsimonious to penetrative. Once Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan joined forces, neither batsman struggled to account for Eranga's seam and swing.
Eranga lacks creativity, and is not yet capable of devising focused plans to test good batsmen, though perhaps for a man who did not play serious cricket until he was discovered at the age of 20, bowling smart can only come with experience. For now, as he can bowl in excess of 140kph, has a grip on the basics of movement, and can increasingly deliver steady spells like he bowled today, there is enough to indicate Sri Lanka could build an attack around him.
Suranga Lakmal still averages over 65 in his 14th Test, but given the dearth of competition, Sri Lanka will not want to discard him easily either. Like Eranga, he moved the ball modestly today, but not nearly enough to trouble high-quality batsmen on a regular basis. At his slightly slower pace, he will never take bagfuls of wickets by waiting for batsmen to make mistakes. A fuller length teasing batsmen into the drive might have been more fruitful for him, and when nothing was happening, a change in angle or a burst of short bowling could at least have been tried.
"Test match bowling is about bowling in partnerships and identifying your role," coach Graham Ford said at the close of play. "Some days, the pitch will play in your favour and all you have to do is put it in the right areas, but other days you have to make it happen. They've got wise advice and support from Chaminda Vaas who has done it for years and years, and knows Test-match bowling inside out. Hopefully they will gradually develop into bowlers that will win Test matches."
As an exemplar, Vaas is about as good as it gets for any fast bowler in Sri Lanka. His unwavering accuracy may be difficult to replicate, but the manner in which he constructed spells, manoeuvred batsmen, and embellished his seam and swing through his career need not be beyond the emerging pair. As Ford says, Vaas is a mountain of fast-bowling knowledge, but that is a resource which has not yet produced visible returns. Part of that, of course, is because there have only been two Tests since Vaas was appointed almost a year ago.
"If Eranga and Lakmal had the opportunity to play more Test cricket, we'd be able to develop a unit that's capable of making more of an impact against high-quality batsmen," Ford said. "To make that progress you need to be playing Test-match cricket. These guys had made some progress previously, but we are almost back starting from square one again with them."
For the moment, there is no escaping the fact that Sri Lanka's attack is among the worst in the world, and that more Tests for the bright bowling prospects is vital to changing that. Herath wins matches when he can manage it, but until Sri Lanka's quicks embark on that long, hard road that Vaas once trod, there will be many more sapping days in the desert.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here