The beginning of a new dawn for Sri Lanka
When Angelo Mathews accepted the Test and ODI captaincy three weeks ago, he spoke of the joy he felt at his appointment and the exciting possibilities he envisioned for a team attempting regeneration. If there was any naivety in Mathews' reckoning of what it would be like to captain Sri Lanka then, it will have been slammed out of him by what transpired in the past week. Before he has even had one Test at the helm, he has been put through the fire of a board lock-out, and had his tact and loyalties examined thoroughly.
It would be a difficult episode for even the most seasoned leader to see his side through, but for Mathews it is a monumental task. Less than a week after essentially having their status as national cricketers stripped from them and being cornered into signing away a chunk of their earnings, his men now must to gird themselves and begin a full tour.
Among several compounding factors for Mathews is the inexperience of his team. A new selection panel has brought a fervent focus on youth, and as a result, Sri Lanka's top seven will have to field at least four batsmen who have played fewer than ten Tests. Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan may have developed the ability to empty their heads of events even as disruptive as the contracts crisis when they are at the crease, but the younger crop is more likely to be psychologically susceptible. Sri Lanka are lucky it is not one of the more verbal teams in cricket who are touring, because as far as sledging goes, there is plenty of powder to pack into cannons at present. Mathews will miss the wisdom of Mahela Jayawardene too, who is not with the squad, as he navigates his first assignment.
There is also less room for error now in this series. For months forces within SLC had worked to portray the players as pampered and indisciplined, and last weekend's events have only helped to advance those sentiments among many in the public. Lasith Malinga's impolite interactions with media have not helped endear players to fans either. Mathews must know now that his side is only one loss to Bangladesh away from the scathing criticism from some turning into widespread vitriol. It is not difficult to see that what once shaped as a straightforward series for the hosts has now become a minefield with consequences both in and away from the cricket itself.
It is a pity that the pay dispute has overshadowed the build-up to the tour, because in many ways, this series is a new dawn for Sri Lanka. Not only has a new leadership group been identified and appointed, for first time in years the hype does not revolve around the senior players in the side. In the team's last Test in Sydney, the three batsmen under 25 played excellent innings, and as a result, Dinesh Chandimal, Dimuth Karunaratne and Lahiru Thirimanne are all set for long stints in the top Test XI, as long as they can score heavily enough to justify their places.
More talent waits beyond the youngsters who have already tasted international cricket. Kithuruwan Vithanage has given himself a chance of being picked for the Tests with his 168 not out from 165 balls against a full-strength Bangladesh attack in the Matara tour match. Tharindu Kaushal is the latest outrageous spin talent in the country, having reaped six five-wicket hauls in five first-class matches in his debut season so far. The selectors have already suggested that others like middle-order batsman Angelo Perera, who has scored quickly and heavily for several seasons now, may be in line to earn a place during the limited-overs leg.
Though uncertainty might define the approach to the series for Mathews, he still has potential trump cards in hand as well. Sangakkara is returning from injury, but after a dismal series against New Zealand and a frustratingly brief one against Australia, he is unlikely to want anything less than thorough success, and if his monstrous home record against Bangladesh is anything to go by, the visitors may be in for wearisome stints in the field. Bangladesh batsmen may have been weaned on left-arm spin at home, but playing Rangana Herath in Galle has been a test few batsmen have convincingly passed in recent years, and even in their current state, Sri Lanka will be distraught if they do not walk out of their favourite venue with a handy win.
Before the contracts crisis broke open, Mathews had reiterated in the press that Bangladesh is not an opponent his team can take lightly. There is suddenly much more on the line now, and for a bold, new Sri Lanka, it is a series through which they must assure themselves, and the public, that all is well, and the future is secure.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here