Pakistan v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Dubai, 1st day January 8, 2014

Watershed moment for Sri Lanka quicks

From looking completely out of their depth in Australia to destroying Pakistan's top order in Dubai, Sri Lanka's fast bowlers have come a long way to realising their penetrative potential
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On Sri Lanka's last away tour, in Australia, the touring pace attack had been belittled so extensively by former players and media, the then-captain Mahela Jayawardene was called upon routinely to defend his bowlers. "We probably don't have the pace which you think is required to win Test matches in Australia," he had said. "But we've got guys who can bowl good lines and create pressure in different ways."

Even that modest standard largely proved beyond Sri Lanka's quicks on that tour, where Rangana Herath seemed the only attacking force. His team-mates often failed to even provide him the courtesy of their support. Twelve months later, on the first day in Dubai, Herath was a sideshow. Suddenly made sharper by Nuwan Pradeep's introduction, Sri Lanka's pace attack went from miserly to menacing, as the bowling coach who had been appointed in the aftermath of the Australia tour, watched on.

It is often hard to pinpoint the forces that drive collective success, just as it may be simplistic to blame a single coach or player for a group's failure. But as Sri Lanka's fast bowlers provided the strongest indication of their penetrative potential yet, it was not difficult to see Chaminda Vaas' influence, perhaps for the first time. Like Vaas was for so much of his career, Sri Lanka were persistent without being destructive and pernicious without being devastating.

Six days into the tour, Sri Lanka's most surprising leaps have been made by the pace attack. The young batsmen may have led the team's revival in Abu Dhabi, but their ability had been suspected for some time. Since his appointment, Vaas has spoken often about the simplicity of Test match bowling - of achieving a consistent line and length first, then allowing the other virtues to flow into one's game. There was no banana swing or vicious lift for Sri Lanka's fast bowlers on Wednesday, but by lunch they had conceded only 53 from 24 overs. Even in his prime, Vaas might have been proud of a pitch map that read like Suranga Lakmal's clustered returns. Jayawardene's hope that Sri Lanka's bowlers could attack through pressure was being realised.

"Test cricket is all about basics for fast bowlers," Vaas said. "They were a bit unlucky in the first two hours and when they came for lunch we were talking about how to get the ball into the right areas, and bowl good lines and lengths. They did what we wanted and got the rewards."

The fast bowlers had been accurate in large stretches in Abu Dhabi, but in his first match in a year, Pradeep brought the edge. Lakmal and Shaminda Eranga pitched it on a length and swung it away, but Pradeep hurried the batsmen and moved it both ways off the seam. Having watched so many balls beat the outside edge, the one that jagged in removed Ahmed Shehzad and Mohammed Hafeez, who had begun to habitually step towards off. The switch had been among Vaas' own favourite manoeuvres, and though at the end of the day Pradeep pleaded ignorance on how he managed it, he has never shown such aptitude for swing and seam in international cricket before.

Sri Lanka had also begun speaking with a new confidence about their fast men after the first Test, and the rewards of riding on a cloud of good vibes was evident in Eranga's bowling. Several times he beat the bat with balls that moved late towards the right-hand batsmen in the air, then straightened off the seam. When he eventually drew the edge with that ball, he took the two wickets that sparked Pakistan's post-lunch collapse. Lakmal was perhaps the unluckiest of the three bowlers, having had a batsman dropped off his bowling and several edges fall just out of reach.

As impressive and unexpected a scoreline of 129 for 7 is, it is important to remember Pakistan have hardly been resistant to collapsing in recent years. The last occasion in which Sri Lanka's fast bowlers had claimed the first seven wickets in an innings had been against Pakistan in 2009, for instance. In Australia, batsmen better-drilled in playing the moving ball had been capable of hitting bowlers off their lengths, so the mid-year series against England - whose own batsmen's techniques have been robust against swing at home - looms as a defining challenge for this group of players.

It might be years before Vaas' true effect on this attack is fully known. Lakmal's average is still over 60 and Pradeep only just managed to whittle his down to double figures with his third scalp of the day. But in Sri Lanka's best away bowling effort since the 2011 Test in Durban, hints of progress have begun to emerge.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • espncricinfomobile on January 9, 2014, 21:45 GMT

    Funny kid, didn't India struggle in test matches in SA?

  • mysay on January 9, 2014, 9:53 GMT

    Great show by SL quicks. These bunch of lads had the talent, all they needed was guidance in the right direct which Vaas seems to have imparted. Malinga being axed is a blessing in disguise. Even though he does not partake in Tests his axing shows that no matter the name, SLC is not going to accommodate big named dead weight baggage. So this is also a wake up call to these youngsters who will now on keep getting better

  • MichaelBurton on January 9, 2014, 8:41 GMT

    It was amaizing how Lankan quicks extracted literally non existing face and movement from this flat wicket. Pak's Junaid and Batti failed to grasp this so far. If SLn quicks continue in this manner with Herat around, "best toothless attack" would definitely pass on to us who are second only to Lankans.

  • funnykid on January 9, 2014, 5:52 GMT

    With due apologies, Sri Lankan fast bowling is quite ordinary without Malinga. They could not have been so successful on this very pitch had they been bowling to top teams like India, South Africa or Australia. It is the incompetency of Pakistani batsmen which was on display as usual.I cannot understand as to what has gone wrong with the present crop of Pakistani batsmen, batting collapses have become a normal routine. Just look a Younis Khan's dismissal, paying miles away from the body. He is supposed to be the best batsmen in Pakistan team.

  • MichaelBurton on January 9, 2014, 5:48 GMT

    @samincolumbia: Yes Lankans should show their talent against SA and Aus in their home country fast wickets and Ind against our flat wickets. I don't think any player except Kholi and Pujara will put up a fight against this new trio in fast bouncy wickets.

  • android_user on January 9, 2014, 5:35 GMT

    @udendra....yap iam agree with u...in australlia he touch 150 kmph....but un here he hardky touch 143kmph...but its gd beacause if u ball gd line and lenth peace is only extra benifit for a fast baller

  • android_user on January 9, 2014, 5:24 GMT

    i think vaas doing gd job with his job...specially with lakmal..lakmal ball out swings like vaas...he needs to ball more inswigers also..then sl bowling is ok...to me LAKMAL IS 1 STRIKE BOWLER,PRADEEP 2 ND,ERANGA 3RD...

  • dummy4fb on January 9, 2014, 5:16 GMT

    The success story yesterday had one simple fact. That was bowlers the fast men getting closer to stumps at delivery point and keeping the bowl in play not allowing batsmen to just leave it alone. Keep It Simple Stupid has worked again.

  • Udendra on January 9, 2014, 5:10 GMT

    Earlier Vaas had criticized SL bowlers for not having "the killer instinct". Good to see them improve although Pradeep's speed has dropped a bit.

  • outforhatrick on January 9, 2014, 4:46 GMT

    good effort by SL new breed of fast bowlers.. hope this is not one event and also all subcontinent teams start winning more away from subcontinent, AUS and SA consistently win in subcontinent... which has to change for Test crickets future

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