Sri Lanka grapple with 'keeper quandary
Sri Lanka's training session on Thursday at the R Premadasa Stadium was the setting for the return to action of the world's best pure wicketkeeper. Prasanna Jayawardene, who is out of the Test squad with a finger injury, trained with the team and didn't look in any obvious discomfort. We don't know if he is fully fit yet but the chances are that, even if he is, he could have to sit out the second Test - such is the balance of the team in the likely absence of Muttiah Muralitharan.
With both Murali and Prasanna out of the first Test, Sri Lanka took a big gamble and broke with tradition by putting Tillakaratne Dilshan behind the stumps. Dilshan is not your regular wicketkeeper - he doesn't keep in the limited-overs formats either. It was a gamble though one, going by the end result, that worked for Sri Lanka.
The decision was important because it allowed Sri Lanka to play Angelo Mathews, whose performances in domestic cricket had made it difficult for the team management to ignore him during the selection meetings. As it turned out, Mathews counterattacked twice to get Sri Lanka important runs in a close contest, and also got Younis Khan's wicket twice. It's his bowling that will make it difficult to drop Mathews, even if Prasanna were fit. In Murali's absence, it is seen as a big risk to go with just four bowlers with a collective career of 34 Tests. And it is unlikely Sri Lanka will risk hurrying Murali back for the second Test, which starts on Sunday.
Which brings us back to the original choice of the stop-gap arrangement of persisting with Dilshan, whom we might not have seen doing the duties had Kumar Sangakkara not been captain. His work behind the stumps befitted an irregular keeper, but one with exceptional hand-eye coordination. Twenty-five byes on a pitch that didn't break doesn't make good reading, but two run-outs and a good catch towards the end of the match do. The lack of proper wicketkeeping technique kept putting him in awkward positions but his natural reflex action kept bailing him out, which explains the number of spectacular dives during the match. "It worked. Dilshan has a huge talent in everything he does," Sangakkara said after the Galle Test. "Even with gloves on, he managed to effect two crucial run-outs. You'll have good days, you'll have bad days."
It is a tricky situation for Sri Lanka to ascertain whether what Mathews brings to the side makes up for the lack of a specialist wicketkeeper and the effect wicketkeeping has on Dilshan's batting. This is merely conjecture but Dilshan was twice dismissed as a consequence of breaks in concentration, steering wide deliveries to fielders. The answer will become further complicated if Prasanna is available, it will become easier if Murali indeed doesn't play.
"We have to decide whether it is affecting his [Dilshan's] batting," Sangakkara said. "If so, can I do the job? It's finally going to be a question of balancing the side. We saw that once we had three pace bowlers, and it was a huge change. It takes a lot of pressure off the entire bowling unit."
As things stand now, especially with Murali likely to be out, we could be in for another Test with a part-time wicketkeeper, be it Sangakkara or Dilshan. Sangakkara's thinking on the matter is straight: "Sometimes decisions raise eyebrows. If it works you get credit, if it doesn't you get criticism. That's reality. That should be accepted by players. At the end of the day everybody should be able to stand up and say, 'We took the decision for the balance of the side and to try and win a Test match.' If it doesn't work, we have to accept the criticism."
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo