Pitch exposes Sri Lanka's bowling woes
Each of the three Test wins at home Sri Lanka have earned in the two years and seven months since Muttiah Muralitharan retired, have been in Galle. It has become a fortress of sorts - though perhaps not quite as formidable as the sixteenth-century structure that towers over it.
It is the reason they begin each home series here. A Test in Galle often means a series lead for the hosts, and though they have not always built a series win upon that psychological head-start, they have at least prevented a home record as poor as their away results have been. Now, against a team Sri Lanka supposedly outrank by a distance, they are at risk of being held to a deflating draw.
The surface in Galle may be the least lively pitch since Chris Gayle bludgeoned a triple-century in November 2010, but in 93 overs on day three, all Sri Lanka's bowlers had produced were two dismissals and three half-chances. Rangana Herath was the unsurprising frontrunner to take a wicket at every stage, but while he at least beat the bat on occasion, rarely did any of the other bowlers produce an over of menace beyond the first hour. In Sri Lanka's past five Tests, the batsmen have been primarily at fault for poor performance, but now that an injection of youth has been administered to correct that malaise, the bowlers' continued ineffectiveness has come into focus.
Shaminda Eranga began with vigour with the new ball on day two, but his stint in the field had clearly sapped him, because the following day's work was a deal less sprightly. He seamed the ball away a touch in his first spell, but his speed fell progressively thereafter, and by the third session, he was serving up stale full tosses and tired short balls, almost 15 kph slower on average than his first spell in the Test. Eranga is one of the few Sri Lankan fast bowlers who has not almost earned a free surgery on his hospital loyalty card, and is correctly being thought of as a long-term spearhead. But he cannot allow his standards to dip so dramatically even in conditions as tough as this, because if he can't provide the breakthrough, perhaps no one will.
The hosts were also at a numerical disadvantage, effectively having to cope with having only three frontline bowlers. On his return to the Test side, Ajantha Mendis set about reminding fans why he had been dropped almost two years ago in the first place. Mendis not only floated up a stream of rank half-volleys and even worse full tosses, his figures affirmed the fact that the number of teams he can be effective against grows fewer with each series. On as unresponsive a surface as this, Tillakaratne Dilshan's offspin is a far more hostile proposition.
Anamul Haque, his only victim, cursed himself all the way to the dressing room on the second day, perhaps because he felt he had been bowled by a delivery he would hit through the covers for four on most days. In Twenty20s, and perhaps ODIs, Mendis can still contain enough batsmen and strike when they venture aggression. But although they were concerned about loading the team with too much inexperience, the selectors will feel Tharindu Kaushal, who is by far the superior long-term prospect, would have been the better choice for this Test.
Nuwan Kulasekara achieved swing into the right-hand batsman early on, but as was the case in his last Test, on another flat pitch in Hobart, his threat disappeared completely as the ball wore, and his control was no great defence against a busy opposition advance. He has embellished his swing in the past two years, even introducing a ball that seams away from the right-hander, but at his pace, perhaps he should be reserved for those Test tracks truly suited to movement.
The problem for Sri Lanka, is that beyond Kaushal's offspin, there are few bowlers who promise Test proficiency, both on the fringes of the team or in the first-class system. Chanaka Welegedara was an improving bowler and sometime spearhead, but a string of injuries in the last 18 months has seen him enter an ominous cycle of injury-layoff-comeback-injury, and at almost 32, he cannot have many more series on the sidelines before the selectors do not consider him a worthwhile investment. Before he tore a hamstring in the Boxing Day Test, Welegedara had barely begun finding his rhythm again after the shoulder injury that kept him out for much of 2012. He is in the squad for this Test, but coach Graham Ford said he was yet to return to full capacity after the hamstring tear.
"One of the possible reasons Welegedara wasn't picked is because he was injured in Australia, and he is working his way in. It's a case of getting himself back into cricket again. He's been in pretty good form in the nets, working with Vaasy, and he's getting his swing going. When Vaasy says he is ready, we'll pick him. He is certainly a consideration for the second Test."
The other bowling options for Sri Lanka have largely been tried, and have underwhelmed in Tests. Suranga Lakmal averages over 60 after 13 matches, Suraj Randiv struggled for control during his time as Sri Lanka's second spinner, and Nuwan Pradeep seems as fragile as he is quick.
Though the domestic competitions are brimming with young batting talent, Sri Lanka's bowling conundrum has no easy answers. In the long term, better pitches and a leaner first-class structure will bring results, but for the moment, the men presently in the selectors' favour must be less yielding in their efforts than they were on day three in Galle.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here