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Andrew Fidel Fernando in Galle
August 5, 2014
For a team that had only four Tests to play in 2013, Sri Lanka have had a crammed eight months since December of last year. In that time Sri Lanka have had full away tours to the UAE, Bangladesh and England, have played the maximum number of possible games in the Asia Cup and World T20, all before last month's South Africa tour, which was their first home assignment of the year.
Though fans have been glad for the surfeit of cricket, the schedule has begun to take a toll on the cricketers. The pace attack in particular has been affected. Nuwan Pradeep missed the South Africa series with injury, before Shaminda Eranga was also forced out of action for nine of the ten Test-match days in July.
Both had recovered in time to be in contention for the first Test against Pakistan, but Sri Lanka are now without their other key seam bowler, Suranga Lakmal, after he injured his ankle during the last Test match. Lakmal had also missed the England Tests with a hamstring tear.
"Eranga is fully fit but with Suranga out of the series, either Eranga or Suranga have been injured from the Bangladesh series onwards," captain Angelo Mathews said. "We didn't have both of them together - which would have been a very formidable attack. But I still have good options in Dhammika Prasad and Nuwan Pradeep. They've bowled pretty well in the recent past. And the two spinners have been bowling magnificently. I feel that I've got the bowling attack to take 20 wickets."
Prasad and Pradeep had both contributed to the series victory in England, but their work rates have been light in comparison to the spin bowlers' labours. Rangana Herath has borne the heaviest load, delivering 172 overs in the two Tests against South Africa, only three weeks after he had delivered 127.3 overs in two Tests in England. Four Sri Lanka bowlers are in this year's top five for most Test overs bowled, including the December 31 Abu Dhabi Test, which means Herath has bowled 491.4 overs - 209.4 more than anyone else. With another spin-friendly Galle pitch on the cards, he may not have much respite in this series, Mathews suggested.
"We get a lot of slow turning tracks here and the spinners come into play more often than not," Mathews said. "Rangana has been our No.1 spinner for so many years now, after Muttiah Muralitharan's retirement. Playing in Sri Lanka, it's unfortunate that he has to bowl a lot of overs, but that's the truth."
Pakistan, meanwhile, have had no international commitments since the World T20 ended in early April. Their last Test had in fact been against Sri Lanka, in late January. Opponents coming off a long break might usually be cause for encouragement for the other side, but given the signs of fatigue in his own team, Mathews was not so sure.
"Pakistan have had a good rest whereas we've been playing continuous cricket," he said. "It's always good to get a bit of a rest as well, to refresh your minds and bodies. That's the challenge we are facing as players. When you're playing constantly, you get drained mentally and physically. But the challenge for us is to try and be consistent. It works both ways. They can be a bit rusty, but you never know. They are very unpredictable. They come out all guns blazing. They are a very formidable team when it comes to Tests."
The Galle stadium has been decked out in Mahela Jayawardene posters and billboards ahead of his final Test at a venue that has been the site of some of his greatest innings, from the maiden ton against New Zealand to the 180 against England in 2012. A grand farewell is being planned for Jayawardene at the SSC, which is his home ground, but emotions have already begun running high in the Sri Lanka dressing room, which will feel his absence keenly, Mathews said.
"I'm trying my best to make him play for another year, but unfortunately it's going to end. What a great player he is. The contribution he has made for Sri Lanka cricket for the past 16-17 years is unbelievable - scoring 10,000 runs in both formats.
"On and off the field he is a great gentleman, and I personally learned a lot from him. When I walked into the team he was my first captain and he treated everyone the same. It's very hard to not have him in a team. Any captain would love to have a guy like Mahela. It's going to be a sad moment for Sri Lanka cricket, but we can cherish the things he's done in the past."
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernandoFeeds: Andrew Fidel Fernando
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Shorter tours don't allow you time to get into form, and domestic cricket isn't demanding enough