Sri Lanka adjust to unusual pace in Pallekele
Somewhere in the world, a cricket fan may have tuned into the beginning of New Zealand's innings in the Twenty20 on Tuesday and suspected she was witnessing the first ever day-night Test match. The teams were not wearing whites, but New Zealand's kit was unsullied by a sponsor's logo. Perhaps coloured clothing had become part of the deal in cricket's efforts to sex up its fuddiest format, and for some reason, the purists drew the line at advertising. The Pallekele pitch was first-day laurel, rather than limited-overs tan. The ball was zipping about in both directions and carrying through at chest height. And to seal the ruse, New Zealand had lost their customary five wickets in the first hour.
The match, of course, was heavily influenced by the monsoon, which had forced an underdone pitch and given the swing bowlers added venom in the air, and off the pitch. Angelo Mathews did what any backyard cricketer would have done when handed the captaincy, and opened the bowling. But for a scrambled run off the last ball of the third over, he would have started with two maidens in a row. Nuwan Kulasekara, who is almost the antithesis of an intimidating quick, struck batsmen on the body, surprising them with bounce. And only three fours were managed in the first ten overs.
It was a difficult beginning to the tour for New Zealand's batsmen, but equally, it was a heartening bowling performance for Sri Lanka, who will anticipate another lively surface for the first ODI. The rains have not eased in Kandy, and the square has stayed under covers all day on the eve of the match. The forecast suggests Thursday will be damp as well, meaning that if any cricket is possible, movement in the air can also be expected.
Pallekele may have become a seam bowling stronghold over the last eighteen months, but for most of Sri Lanka's young attack, pitches like this one are an oddity at home. Throughout their school and domestic cricket careers, the low, slow, dusty pitches Sri Lanka has traditionally produced, are their lot. But despite the unfamiliarity, the bowlers quickly assessed the conditions and employed the skills, lines and lengths that would bring them success. Sri Lanka attacks in years gone by, might not have had the nous, nor the expertise to exploit conditions such as these, as well as this one did.
Each of the pace bowlers moved the ball into the batsman in the air, before taking it away off the seam. Short pitched balls were shelved, though some balls leapt off the surface. And the channel outside off stump was where the bowlers largely stayed for much of the curtailed innings. Even spin bowler Akila Dananjaya seemed to enjoy the extra bounce, relying on top spin to remove two batsmen who tried sweeping him.
If Sri Lanka's attack can display a similar mastery of these conditions on Thursday, they will carry confidence not only for the remainder of this series, but into the months coming after New Zealand depart. Their captain Mahela Jayawardene has said this tour is good build up ahead of the full tour to Australia, and it is clear that the team already have one eye on their trip down under. They begin with their Test series in Hobart, which produced a greentop not far removed from the Pallekele pitch, the last time a Test was played there.
"When we went to Australia last year for ODIs, most of the guys enjoyed the pace and the bounce," Jayawardene said. "It is really good, as long as we work hard and learn the tricks, we can perform in most of the conditions. Younger guys learning the trade is the most important thing. It would have been great if our guys had a bat as well on that tricky wicket. It would have been good for our guys to dig in and win that game. That's what we want, for these guys to go through those tough situations and learn the hard way."
Sri Lanka have been planning for even further ahead - looking to the 2015 World Cup, which will be played in Australia and New Zealand. Thisara Perera is a player who has benefited from that forward thinking, and was persevered with despite some mediocre early performances, and has now realised some of the potential team management saw in him.
"2015 is long way off, but we need to prepare," Jayawardene said. "The conditions will suit fast bowlers. A few of our guys are struggling with injuries and once they come back we need to build up a good fast bowling unit. Allrounders are going to be important as well on those conditions. The spinners will also play a role. We have x-factor in our unit."
Pallekele may not be the Antipodes, but it is as good a substitute as can be found in the subcontinent. Sri Lanka have only one practice match in Australia before the Tests begin, but if their attack can flourish again in the first ODI, they may feel they have what it takes to adjust quickly in December.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka