Chandimal, Thirimanne continue to test patience
When Sri Lanka chose to heavily invest in youth in 2013, they might not have expected for it to become an exercise in parenting. But 18 months down that road, seniors in the team, coaches and selectors, may still be giving lectures, having heart-to-heart talks, and setting down firm boundaries. When it comes to Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne, they must be close to collectively banging their heads against a brick wall, in frustration.
To lump Chandimal and Thirimanne together is expedient, but perhaps a little glib. Chandimal is bubbly and excitable, never lacking for effort or good intent, but at times thoughtless and immature. Take his dismissal on Friday. He was facing the best bowler on the planet, in the midst of a ferocious spell of reverse swing. No one wants to walk in and take guard against a Dale Steyn with hellfire in his eyes, facial veins bulging so big, you could read his pulse from space. But as a No.7, Chandimal's job is to protect the tail, and support the man at the other end, no matter what is being rained down upon him.
As a right-hander, he also had a slight advantage against Steyn, who was largely swinging it in. He dug out six curling yorkers dutifully - even admirably - although he had driven at a full delivery second ball and edged it past the slips. Then the bouncer came. Everyone had expected it.
Since Junaid Khan had him caught hooking compulsively twice in the UAE, Chandimal has been tested with the short ball at each subsequent series. As soon as he arrived at the crease in his most recent international innings at Headingley, two men were deployed in the deep, square on the legside, and the bowlers began to pitch it short. With Sri Lanka only 169 runs ahead in the second innings, five wickets down, and a tail known to be comically inept to come, Chandimal folded neatly into England's leg trap, top-edging Liam Plunkett to deep square leg.
Over the past six months his coaches will have hurled hundreds of bouncers at him in the nets. Senior team-mates might have had a word : "Less is more, sometimes Chandi. You can play the hook, but maybe get yourself in first." But like a teenager whose parents trust with the car, only to have him repeatedly drive it into the lake, Chandimal has hooked on instinct and came back sodden and apologetic.
Given the thorough analysis of opposition players that now abounds in the sport, Chandimal must know that the South Africa attack was completely aware of this common mode of dismissal. He may as well have arrived at the crease with a banner above his head reading "Bounce Me". He has also played enough cricket to know that balls at the throat often follow a series of yorkers. Apart from outswing, outswing, outswing, in, this is the oldest trick in the fast bowlers' manual.
But 11th ball, Steyn pitches it short and Chandimal rocks back to play a full-blooded hook, with no thought to keeping the stroke down. He mistimes it to short midwicket. In the 74th over, on a dry Galle surface, with your side in trouble, it is no time to be getting out playing the hook, even against Steyn. This was not so much driving into the lake, than staying strapped to your seat while someone puts a garden hose through the window and fills the car with water.
That he has a yearning to learn, and a terrific attitude towards his cricket is a valid defense, because he has played vital innings for the team in the past. But there are still missing components from his game. All that talent, energy and enthusiasm could be married to better sense.
In contrast to Chandimal, Lahiru Thirimanne is even-tempered, reflective and reserved. Those qualities have served him well in patches of his career, but now, the team needs him to fight through his awkward adolescent phase and become a consistent wellspring of good scores. When Mahela Jayawardene leaves the Test side, Thirimanne is the frontrunner to replace him at No.4. Steyn was beastly in his post-tea burst, but when an opponent is in the middle of a searing streak, perhaps the expansive cover drives can be temporarily shelved.
It is difficult not to feel sympathy for Chandimal and Thirimanne, and easy to make huge allowances for the vastness of their challenge; that of bridging the chasm between Sri Lanka's domestic competitions and international cricket. It is also too early to let them go. Almost every Sri Lanka batsman is a slow starter at this level. But like couples who look enviously at the neighbour's kids, Sri Lanka's selectors must be, by now, casting an eye at the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara or Quinton de Kock, and wondering what they can do to change things at home. "These are the kids we have," they might conclude. "We just have to stick by them and hope for the best."
Sri Lanka now fight to save a Test in which they are usually chasing victory, by this stage. That they avoided the follow-on is thanks largely to Angelo Mathews, who has scored runs enough for himself, and the vice-captain, whoever he is on that given tour. He will hope the young men in his batting order make better choices in the second dig.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando