Sri Lanka face fast-bowling questions
Heading into the two-Test series with New Zealand, Sri Lanka have the visitors beaten on paper in most aspects. A man-for-man comparison of the two top sixes might show that only Sri Lanka's opener, Tharanga Paranavitana, fails to command better numbers than his opposite. The chasm in quality is almost as wide among the spinners. Rangana Herath has bowled several match-turning spells for Sri Lanka in the last 12 months, both home and away, but Jeetan Patel's only five-wicket haul came in 2008. For all Kruger van Wyk's fight, Prasanna Jayawardene is more assured behind the stumps and with the bat, and Mahela Jayawardene remains at least as good as Ross Taylor in the slips.
Where Sri Lanka are soundly bested though, is in the pace bowling department. Since Chaminda Vaas retired in 2009, several bowlers have been tried, retried and jettisoned, without anyone making a sustained claim for the position of fast-bowling spearhead. Left-armer Thilan Thushara was Sri Lanka's great hope for a while, before his form and confidence fell away rapidly in 2010. Dilhara Fernando has appeared intermittently, but has done little to prove he is fit for Tests, or international cricket at all, and Suranga Lakmal was largely underwhelming before getting injured.
The fast bowlers currently in the squad do not inspire much more confidence. Chanaka Welegedara came closest to donning the spearhead's mantle when he had a number of encouraging outings in 2011, but he has also been listless in other spells, and is coming back from injury to boot. Nuwan Kulasekara is a fine limited-overs bowler, but in Tests, when the ball loses its shine and there is little swing on offer, he becomes very hittable at 130 kph. Dhammika Prasad suffers from the opposite ailment; he has pace, but not much else. And as promising as Shaminda Eranga has been, he has played too little international cricket to prove he can be Sri Lanka's pace panacea.
The problem for Sri Lanka is at domestic and school level, where pitches conducive to movement are scarce, and tracks with pace and bounce even rarer. To bowl fast in Sri Lanka is to toil while the spinners reap, and though some international cricket venues have suddenly become havens of swing and seam, first-class pitches remain tiresome for the quick men.
The fast bowlers in the national side however, cannot use poor pitches as an excuse for mediocrity, particularly with the challenges that loom in Australia. After the New Zealand series, Sri Lanka depart for their most high profile tour in years. Their first Test assignment is at Hobart, which was a greentop the last time a Test was played there, and has barely settled down since the square was relaid earlier this year. Sri Lanka's seam bowlers may get away with allowing the spinners to paper over their failures at home, but unless they take major strides in the Tests against New Zealand, they will be exposed by Australian pitches and a batting unit that has recently quelled the threat of even the most potent pace attack - South Africa.
Sri Lanka's fast bowlers may have a difficult beginning to the series in Galle, where spinners often rule, but if the November rains have livened up the surface, they may enjoy some assistance. A better measure of their worth, and a more accurate gauge of their prospects down under, will come in the second Test at the P Sara Oval, which has long been the most seam friendly Test venue in the country - though perhaps now, it has been pipped by Pallekele. Sri Lanka have only one warm up match in Australia, and the pace and bounce in the P Sara pitch might go some way to deciding which of Sri Lanka's fast men will take the field in Hobart.
New Zealand's more obvious batting weakness may be against spin, but as they proved in Hamilton earlier this year - again, against South Africa - they can be just as susceptible to fast bowling of high quality. If Sri Lanka's pace battery can emerge from this series having made significant contributions to a series win, they will have given themselves form and momentum, and some hope of taking their side to a first ever Test victory in Australia. If they cannot, Sri Lanka's campaign in Australia could well be stillborn.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka