Sri Lanka v Australia, 2nd Test, Pallekele, 1st day September 8, 2011

The leader and the left-over

While Michael Clarke has looked the part of leader of his team in the series so far, Tillakaratne Dilshan seems to be finding it hard to cope with the complex demands of captaining Sri Lanka

Michael Clarke became Australia's Test captain after at least three years of waiting for Ricky Ponting to grant him the privilege. Tillakaratne Dilshan inherited Sri Lanka's crown only once all his contemporaries had taken their turn. This difference was as striking as the Pallekele sunshine on the first day of the second Test, in a series that is rapidly becoming a mismatch between a natural leader and one who looks anything but.

Those wishing to be critical of Clarke often point out, among other caustic observations, that he has never led his state side, New South Wales. The job was shared among Brad Haddin, Simon Katich and Stuart Clark in the years following Steve Waugh's retirement. But this lack of domestic experience in leadership reflected Clarke's progress as a player, rather than shortcomings as an on-field marshall. He debuted for Australia at 21 (23 in Tests) and was spending more time outside the NSW XI than in it by the time he may have been considered for the captaincy. He led many representative teams during his teenage years, and has always appeared to think like a captain on the field, irrespective of his official status.

Such alertness has been writ large across his first series as Australia's fully-fledged leader. Clarke wants to make things happen in Sri Lanka, and so far he has done so. Bowling changes have regularly brought wickets, seldom has an edge flown where a slip fielder was not posted, and the bowlers have followed through on his plans with a thoroughness that suggests they want to do their best for him as well as themselves. While the success in Galle had an element of "critical toss" providence about it, Clarke's leadership on the first day in Pallekele, when both captains regarded the pitch with far less suspicion, was expert.

The early life offered by Pallekele's pitch and altitude was used with almost as much precision as England had managed against Australia on the first day of the second Ashes Test at the Adelaide Oval last year. That track, much like this one, promised to flatten out into a pristine batting strip once the first hour's life had been negotiated. Here, Clarke kept Ryan Harris and Trent Copeland in partnership to provide the early breakthroughs, then gambled with his deputy Shane Watson as the first change bowler, instead of Mitchell Johnson, to see if any more conventional swing could be extracted.

He introduced Nathan Lyon in the penultimate over before lunch and was rewarded when Prasanna Jayawardene swung at the bowler's teasing loop once too often, Sri Lanka losing half their side in the morning session. But Clarke's most inspired moment would arrive at the day's midpoint, just as Kumar Sangakkara and Angelo Mathews threatened to build a hefty partnership. Most would have handed the ball to a frontline bowler; some might have handed it to the captain himself. Instead, Clarke opted for the slow mediums of Michael Hussey, and third ball was outrageously rewarded with the wicket of Sangakkara, pouched at short extra cover. One of the great Richie Benaudisms on captaincy says it is "90% luck and 10% skill, but don't try it without the 10%". In this instance, the share of luck went with the bowler, but the skill fully belonged to Australia's captain. How his counterpart Dilshan must have cussed.

Captaining Sri Lanka is complex and requires taking on all manner of responsibilities, duties and pressures that Clarke and his Australia predecessors could scarcely contemplate. Where in Australia it is said in jest that the national cricket captain holds the second most important job in the nation, in Sri Lanka there are times where such a label can seem entirely justified. Mahela Jayawardene, summed up the role for ESPNcricinfo: "It is not like in other countries. In Sri Lanka leading the team for a year is like you've done it for two or three years - it is a lot of responsibility and a lot of things happen around you. Controlling those variables drains a lot out of you."

The strains of the role wore through Jayawardene and Sangakkara in the space of five years, and when the latter exited the job was thrust into Dilshan's hands. Subtract the final session of the Cardiff Test in England and his first series in charge was a creditable effort by the new captain and his team. But, so far, the home matches against Australia have been little short of disastrous, and leave ugly questions for the team to contemplate. Their lack of a fulltime coach since the exit of Trevor Bayliss after the World Cup cannot have helped, for Dilshan appears to need a stronger guiding hand at the back-room tiller than he seems to be getting.

The morning of this Test brought with it several problems for Dilshan to negotiate. Chanaka Welegedara passed a fitness test after a knee problem, but an injured finger for Rangana Herath and back trouble for Ajantha Mendis robbed the captain of his two most likely sources of wickets. The last minute reshuffle contrasted with an Australia XI that was known two days prior to the toss.

Dilshan is not a natural tactician, and his flighty batting cannot be expected to set an example for all to follow. He tried to play the long game in Pallekele, having swatted ignobly in Galle, but was undone by Copeland's suffocating line and the movement readily available off a fresh pitch. The decision to leave a rather straight ball was a possible reflection of mental fatigue.

With the exceptions of Sangakkara and Mathews the rest of the batsmen folded all too readily and, by day's end, the series was galloping away from the hosts. At this point it does not appear as though the side fiercely wants to play for Dilshan, and that the captain is being pulled in more directions than his skill and character can handle. He looks very much, as the Sri Lankan cricket establishment decided long ago, the third choice.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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