Australia face five-day spin challenge
August 31-September 4, Galle
Start time 10:00 (04:30 GMT, 14:30 EST)
Big PictureAnd so, the real challenge begins. Sri Lanka have won the Twenty20s and Australia took the ODI series, but those results will be quickly forgotten when this three-Test battle begins. In the one-day format, it was a meeting of the top two teams in the world, according to the ICC's rankings, but in the Tests it is No. 4 v No. 5, and neither team is content to sit in the middle of the pack. There are major personnel changes in both camps from the short format to the five-day game, and yet some lessons learnt over the past couple of weeks could have significance in the Tests.
Importantly, the Australians have now had a good look at Ajantha Mendis, whose mysteries they slowly began to understand over the course of the series. By the end of the ODIs, Australia's batsmen had worked out ways to cope with him, even if not all were reading his variations. However, handling Mendis over five days is a different proposition, especially on a pitch expected to turn from the first day. Watching the ball out of his hand and carefully trying to detect his subtle changes, over and over again, for every delivery in a long spell, requires supreme concentration. The Australians will find it draining. Even under normal circumstances, they can struggle against quality spin, and there will be times over the course of this match when they'll face tweakers from both ends with men around the bat. Michael Clarke doesn't mind using his feet, but how his colleagues handle the pressure will be key to Australia's chances.
The one-day series also revealed a significant difference in the captaincy of the two sides. Clarke has been Australia's full-time leader for less than six months, but already he has shown himself to be an intuitive, adventurous and aggressive captain, and it's impossible to quantify what effect that will have on Australia's performance over the coming months. By comparison, Tillakaratne Dilshan was at times slow to react to the changing game, and seemed to lack the natural leadership of Clarke. Dilshan is also relatively new to the role and if he leads from the front with a pile of runs, he'll have done his job, but it's hard to avoid the feeling that Sri Lankan would have been a more formidable foe under Kumar Sangakkara.
But the cold, hard facts are that both teams have struggled in Test cricket over the past couple of years. Back in 2008, Australia started the year as the top-ranked Test team in the world, on 141 points, while Sri Lanka were third on 109. Not much has changed for Sri Lanka, who are now fourth on 108. But Australia have plummeted to fifth, on 100 points.
Sri Lanka have won only one of their past 12 Tests, while Australia have won one of their past eight, and this is their first Test series since the disastrous Ashes campaign at home that led to the Argus review. Given that the Australians haven't played a Test in Sri Lanka in seven years, the hosts, with their spin-heavy attack on dry pitches, deserve to go into the series as slight favourites.
Form guide(Most recent first)
Sri Lanka DDLDD
In the spotlightSri Lanka's middle order was a major concern in the one-day series, but Australia will find it much tougher to get through a Test line-up featuring Thilan Samaraweera. Just getting rid of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene doesn't mean the hard work is done. The obdurate Samaraweera will add some starch to Sri Lanka's batting order, although despite his reputation and experience, he hasn't brought out his best against Australia in the past. He's played five Tests against them but averages only 31.22 with a top score of 70. But in Sri Lankan conditions, where he averages 76.12 over the past four years, the Australians will underestimate him at their peril.
Australia will have two bowling debutants in Trent Copeland and Nathan Lyon, plus a fresh face in Usman Khawaja at No. 6, and they are entering the era of a new opening pair, but despite those sub-plots the focus will really be on Michael Clarke in his first Test series as captain. Clarke has impressed with his thoughtful leadership in the one-day team since taking over from Ricky Ponting, but it's not his management that's the issue. Clarke needs Test runs. He had a miserable Ashes campaign and in his past nine Tests he has averaged 21.58 without scoring a century. A strong series with the bat would ease the pressure on him. On the plus side he is a fine player of spin, which will help him in the Sri Lankan conditions, and he is coming off a century in the tour game.
Team newsSri Lanka cut Seekuge Prasanna, Shaminda Eranga and Dhammika Prasad from the original 16-man squad on match eve. Lahiru Thirimanne's century in the tour match against the Australians might interest the selectors, while the other batting changes from the one-day team are the additions of Samaraweera and the wicketkeeper Prasanna Jayawardene to the middle order. The big question is how many spinners to play. Ajantha Mendis and Rangana Herath should have the front-running. But do they play an extra spinner and rely on Angelo Mathews as the second seamer? One man who won't be in the Sri Lankan XI is Lasith Malinga, who has ruled out a return to Test cricket despite the numerous entreaties he has received from the board and its selectors. Malinga's knees have not improved in their condition since he announced his retirement from Tests in mid-year, and he would only consider a return in the highly unlikely event of visible improvement.
Sri Lanka (possible): 1 Tillakaratne Dilshan (capt), 2 Tharanga Paranavitana / Lahiru Thirimanne, 3 Kumar Sangakkara, 4 Mahela Jayawardene, 5 Thilan Samaraweera, 6 Prasanna Jayawardene (wk), 7 Angelo Mathews, 8 Suranga Lakmal, 9 Rangana Herath, 10 Ajantha Mendis, 11 Chanaka Welegedara.
Given how their fast bowlers performed in the tour match, Australia will stick with one spinner - the debutant Nathan Lyon. The New South Wales seamer Trent Copeland, deservedly, will make his Test debut as well, forming a three-man pace attack with Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris. The other major selection debate has been regarding who would man the No. 6 spot. Usman Khawaja's hundred in the tour match has secured him the place ahead of Shaun Marsh. It is also the first Test in the post-Simon Katich era, so Phillip Hughes will be keen to justify his selection.
Australia: 1 Shane Watson, 2 Phillip Hughes, 3 Ricky Ponting, 4 Michael Clarke (capt), 5 Michael Hussey, 6 Usman Khawaja, 7 Brad Haddin (wk), 8 Mitchell Johnson, 9 Ryan Harris, 10 Trent Copeland, 11 Nathan Lyon.
Pitch and conditions
The absence of any great pace threat means the Galle pitch is likely to take spin from the start, a state of affairs confirmed by the Australians' first visit to the ground on Monday. They were able to digest the sight of a bone-dry surface with very little grass coverage, and those attributes will only be heightened as the Test goes on.
Stats and trivia
- The last time Ricky Ponting played a Test series not as captain - against India in 2003-04 - he made two double-centuries and averaged 100.85
- Ponting is the only member of Australia's squad to have played a Test in Sri Lanka, while five of Sri Lanka's players remain from the most recent tour in 2004
- Kumar Sangakkara needs 113 runs to move into 15th place on the list of all-time leading Test run scorers. As it stands, he's the only man in the top 20 to have played less than 100 Tests
Quotes"Things have changed since our disappointing Ashes series. For anyone who played last summer that's still in our minds. But the reality is we've wiped the slate clean to some extent"
"It's totally different to one dayers when it comes to the Test cricket and a different team. We have a very solid batting line-up, in the last three or four years, No. 1 to No. 6 we've batted really well. I have confidence with my batting line-up"
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo