November 20, 2001

West Indian hopes buoyed by superstitious Sri Lanka

West Indies' hopes of staging a comeback in this three-Test series in the Second Test at Kandy, however unlikely they may seem to the rational observers in Galle, are being boosted by a much talked about hill-country curse on the home team.

Sri Lanka have lost their last three Tests in Kandy, all of which followed thumping wins in Galle, prompting fears amongst superstitious local fans and players that the team is the victim of a hoodoo.

In a country where marriage dates are set according to the alignment of the stars, the politicians sound out astrologers when deciding on strategy, and where minted palm readers lurk in every hotel foyer, apparently irrational fears pose a serious hurdle for the Sri Lankans.

The Sri Lankan cricket board was so concerned about the trend that they had planned to re-jig the itinerary and hold the Second Test in Colombo. The plan had to be abandoned, though, for security reasons when an election was called for early December.

Dav Whatmore, whose coaching philosophy is firmly founded on the dictates of science, is desperately trying to focus the player's minds on the processes necessary for success.

"First of all, we have to acknowledge that our record in Kandy hasn't been good," he said.

"But a cricket match is not won or lost by any hoodoo, voodoo or horoscopes or whatever. It is won or lost by what you do out in the middle."

"The team hasn't done well here recently (remember, though, that we beat Australia on this ground in 1999) for no reason other than the cricket. The bottom line is that during these games we have made crucial mistakes at critical times."

"During occasional sessions we haven't done very well at all and whilst you can't win a game in that hour or two, you can sure go a long way towards losing it. Unfortunately, that's what we have been guilty of."

There are indeed some more rational explanations for Sri Lanka's recent failure. Most strikingly, all three matches have been closely fought high pressure encounters where Sri Lanka had surrendered an early initiative during short, self destructive passages of play, usually in their second innings.

The reasons for defeat point towards a vulnerability under pressure. The pertinent question is whether, with four Test victories in five matches now under their belt, their confidence has been buoyed sufficiently for them to perform during these high tensile passages of play.

There is another reason for Sri Lanka's failure in Kandy too - the pitch offers the faster bowlers extra bounce and lateral assistance if they are willing to bend their backs. In all three losses, against South Africa, England and India, the opposition's fast bowlers have played crucial wicket-taking roles.

The pitch itself is getting browner by the day, but still has a green tinge, and Whatmore believes "the pitch should be kinder to the fast bowlers with a little extra pace and bounce which will, of course, also help the spin bowlers."

This should be good news for West Indies, who look set to pick three fast bowlers.

Carl Hooper, speaking after the team's final practice, said: "I think we played into their hands picking two spinners in Galle and we want to stick with what we know best here and play three quicks. Hopefully there will be something for them in the pitch and we can make use of it. The results in previous Test matches certainly suggest that fast bowlers come into their own here."

West Indies will be happy with the form of Mervyn Dillon and hoping that his opening partner in Galle, Colin Stuart, who bowled better as the match progressed (not so hard when you start so badly), is finding his form at the right time.

The choice of the third fast bowler, however, poses a problem. Reon King is still unfit and has asked to leave the tour so he can undergo surgery in the West Indies, whilst Pedro Collins and Marlon Black are yet to play a game in Sri Lanka. Collins, a left-arm fast bowler, who last played in Zimbabwe as a replacement, is considered favourite to play.

Sri Lanka have boosted their spin bowling with the recall of 29-year-old leg-spinner Upul Chandana, who played the last of his five Test matches against South Africa 15 months ago. But he is unlikely to play as left-arm spinner Niroshan Bandaratillake is rewarded for his key wickets on the last morning in Galle.

The one likely change is the recall of left-arm fast bowler Nuwan Zoysa, who is fully fit again after seven months on the sidelines with an ankle injury. He has played only one first-class match since then, but has impressed sufficiently to be given a chance in place of Charitha Buddika Fernando.

Likely teams:

Sri Lanka: Sanath Jayasuriya (capt), Marvan Atapattu, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Russel Arnold, Hashan Tillakaratne, Thilan Samaraweera, Chaminda Vaas, Nuwan Zoysa, Niroshan Bandaratillake, Muttiah Muralithathan.

West Indies: Carl Hooper (capt), Daren Ganga, Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Brian Lara, Marlon Samuels, Ridley Jacobs, Mervyn Dillon, Colin Stuart, Dinanath Ramnarine, Pedro Collins.