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The limited-overs leg has reinforced the state of flux both teams find themselves in, and the Test series could be won by the side that handles the uncertainty better
August 22, 2011
Michael Clarke is, so far, providing ample evidence that he is a natural tactician and on-field leader, particularly adept in his management of spin bowlers and Mitchell Johnson. Numerous observers, Trevor Bayliss and Darren Lehmann among them, expected Clarke to add plenty to a team of humble means by marshalling his men with flair and vision. His batting has been quietly efficient, and in the final match there was the determined air of a man preparing mentally for coming Tests. Clarke's batting, of course, is the greatest question against his name, for he has averaged barely 21 since being promoted to Test match No. 4 in mid-2010.
Lasith Malinga is Sri Lanka's most incisive bowler by a distance, and the Australian dressing room will be thoroughly relieved that they won't have to factor him into their Test calculations. A hat-trick in the final ODI illustrated Malinga's capacity to blast out the tail, and his speed and swerve can test the reflexes of top-order batsmen almost as readily. The physical demands of Malinga's bowling action were bound to cause him to retire from one form of the game sooner rather than later, but it is a most unfortunate state of affairs that arguably the most compelling sight on either side - Malinga in full flight - has been seen for the final time this tour when three Tests remain to be played.
Freed from the responsibilities of captaincy, Ricky Ponting is in ominously fluent shape. He now looks the right man to set the course of Australia's Test batting from No. 3, a role he was all but incapable of during the Ashes, his final series as leader. The release of the Argus review did not cast Ponting's later years as captain in the most favourable light, as it cited the weakening of a culture that was firmly in his custody. But another observation of the review, that the team has been in decline since 2008, fits neatly with Ponting's reduced runs output. His success with the bat waned in direct proportion to the amount of time and the worries his captaincy duties demanded. He is now able to focus on his oft-stated task of leaving bowlers with only the merest margin for error, and based on the evidence provided in the ODIs it is not hard to picture a Ponting century in Galle.
Australia has a duo of in-form players going home and another pair of out-of-touch cricketers staying on for the Test series. Doug Bollinger and Brett Lee were oddly rested for the final match when they had no longer form cricket ahead of them, and Bollinger's verve through the series suggested he would have been a useful inclusion to the Test squad. The selectors' concerns about Bollinger's fitness were not invalid, but his trim visage and consistent performance in the ODIs suggest Bollinger has made significant steps towards answering those queries. By contrast, the wicketkeeper Brad Haddin is fortunate there is no reserve glove-man on the tour. Told by Clarke to concentrate on his 'keeping, Haddin's batting has fallen away, culminating in his demotion from the opening spot. His glove work has varied - spectacular at times but far from spotless. Michael Hussey is another who has so far failed to find the correct gears.
Tillakaratne Dilshan has some way to go as a captain. Having made the ideal start in the Twenty20 matches, his team has succumbed to capricious batting habits and diminishing danger with the ball. Test runs will be the best way for Dilshan to lead on the field, and his tactics to unsettle the touring bowlers will be refreshed by the arrival of what is, with the exception of Mitchell Johnson, essentially an all-new Australian bowling attack. Dilshan has also had to contend with the instability of political machinations and the odd baffling selection - Kumar Sangakkara cannot be missing the job all that much.
The visiting batsmen are growing more sure of themselves against the wiles of Ajantha Mendis with every innings. Hindsight might have had the Sri Lankan selectors hiding Mendis from the Australians after he had left a distinct aura of danger and mystery during the T20 matches. As it was he retained his place and has gradually diminished in effectiveness, as a tally of five wickets at 34.60 in the ODIs can attest. Mendis' inclusion in the Test XI will be a matter for conjecture, and he will need pitches to offer him the same degree of spin he was able to find while plucking 6 for 16 in Pallekelle if he is to have similar impact against Australian batsmen with increasingly trained eyes.
Much will rest on Thilan Samaraweera's ability to add spine to the Sri Lankan middle order. His handsome record and measured style will be welcome to a group of batsmen who have struggled for meaningful scores. The pivotal batting trio of Dilshan, Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene are neither wholly in form nor out of it, but haven't given the impression that it would be entirely beyond Australia to dismiss them cheaply. Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal have struggled for runs, so Samaraweera's composure is sorely needed.
Irrespective of his coaching record, Tim Nielsen deserves credit for how he has handled the release of the Argus report and the imminent end - for there can be no other possible conclusion - to his tenure as Australia's coach. Almost as startling as the release of the entire executive summary of the report was the fact that Nielsen stepped up to speak in its immediate aftermath. By contrast, the selector on duty and national talent manager Greg Chappell has declined interview requests until he has met with the Cricket Australia chief executive, James Sutherland, in person this week. Members of the touring party have commented that a difficult situation might have been made worse had Nielsen reacted with more venom towards what amounts to an excoriation of his work. That he has retained his composure says much for Nielsen as a man, and should be recognised by his employers even as they move him on.
Shaminda Eranga has been Sri Lanka's find of the limited overs series. Quick and swinging the new ball, Eranga is not quite the sultan of sling that Malinga has been, but his impact has been striking enough to leave open the possibility of a Test match debut. Eranga's two wickets were just as important to Sri Lanka's win in the third match as Malinga's five, while in the final encounter he swung the new ball through Shaun Marsh and then returned to defeat Michael Clarke with skiddy movement away from the bat. Few regard Sri Lanka's bowling attack as particularly strong, but it is certainly sharper for Eranga's emergence.
The Test series will be won by the team that responds best to its presently unsettled state. Both Sri Lanka and Australia must contend with forces gnawing at the edges of the dressing room. The Argus review went down like the kind of cough syrup that often comes straight back up, and has left the visitors in an odd state of flux. The head coach is probably leaving, the selector on duty definitely is, and the fielding coach Steve Rixon is now a likely contender to replace Nielsen, his current superior. Added to this is the fact that Clarke and Nielsen now have equal selection rights to Chappell, who is yet to decide what to do with his future. Sri Lanka meanwhile have board unrest and confusing selection to contend with, plus the pressure of maintaining a strong home record against a team not fancied before its arrival. Neither side is flushed with confidence, and defeat in the first Test will only compound the fact.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: Daniel Brettig
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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