SL bowling coach Ramanayake enthused by Kumara's progress
Of young players that have emerged for Sri Lanka over the past few months, perhaps none has been as surprising as the coming forth of Lahiru Kumara.
He had had an excellent run in the Under-19 team, but when Test selection came for a tour of Zimbabwe, he merely appeared a placeholder quick until the more experienced bowlers returned from injury. Then, in his first match in South Africa - and third overall - Kumara collected the best-ever figures for a Sri Lanka fast bowler in the country, and also became the second-youngest Sri Lankan to claim a five-wicket haul.
Coaches and selectors are enthused by how quickly he has come on, and how much he may yet improve. He needs to work on his control, bowling coach Champaka Ramanayake said, but what Kumara has always had is pace. He was clocked at nearly 145kph at Newlands.
"He's bowling 140kph plus, you know? He'll bowl 150 very soon," said Ramanayake. "He's just 19-plus and he's learning. To get six wickets here against one of the best teams - he bowled some brilliant balls. If he can get more consistency with that length, he can be a very good bowler.
"The pace has come from genetics, so he's always had that. But if he keeps improving general fitness, strengthening and conditioning work, he will get there. Especially when you're at 23 or 24, your body becomes fully matured. That's the time they'll bowl fast."
Kumara had been in Sri Lanka's age-group teams for at least four years, touring Malaysia with the Under-15 side, before graduating to the Under-19 team in 2014, aged 17. His breakthrough series had been in England last year, where he claimed 11 for 134 in a Youth Test in Northampton.
"At the age of 15 he had been identified, but when the Under-19 tours came, he was really highlighted," Ramanayake said. "He always had the pace, but he was a bit short and wild. Young fast bowlers tend to be like that through that period. But then we worked with him on hitting that length, and he has a natural ability to bowl good inswingers. The length was short, but we've worked on that. Now he's much better."
The inswing had seen Kumara put a ball through Hashim Amla's defence in the first innings at Newlands, but later that same innings, he also got balls to leave the right-hander off the seam, after having angled it into the stumps.
"Now he's working on the away-seamer as well. Because he bowls wide of the crease, sometimes he bowls that away one, which is very difficult because of the angle. He's always had a good short ball. I'm not worried about pace. I want him to bowl more on the right spot. He's fast, so if he hits that length it's on to the batsman quickly. No time for them. You can see that he's improving."
Sri Lanka's fast-bowling stocks are regularly ravaged by injury, however, and avoiding long layoffs is among the many challenges that Kumara now faces. This series is being played without Dhammika Prasad, who had been Sri Lanka's best seam bowler in 2015, but has not played a Test since October of that year due to recurring shoulder trouble. Suranga Lakmal, Nuwan Pradeep and Dushmantha Chameera - who are on the tour - had also been sidelined for months, at different times last year.
"When you have a youngster you have to manage him," Ramanayake said. "You never know - anytime you can get a stress fractures and all. We have to look after him. Fitness-wise, he's still raw and we'll have to build him up slowly."
With Kumara's emergence, Sri Lanka now have two quicks who may potentially operate in the high 145-150kph range. Chameera, who suffered a stress fracture in May last year, had previously bowled as fast as 149kph on a tour of New Zealand. He was a long way from his best on his Test return at Port Elizabeth, but Ramanayake is confident the pace will return in time.
"Dushy had a stress fracture and after a stress fracture you are always not sure about giving 100%. He was one of our best bowlers before he got injured, and he'll come back definitely. I'm not sure whether he's playing this Johannesburg Test or not, but in the future, if we have two bowlers who can bowl at 145kph-plus, any side will be very happy. A little bit more bowling will help him."
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando