Sri Lanka selectors rest Atapattu in Kandy
Kandy's reputation for the bizarre and unpredictable was enhanced further on the eve of the second Test against Zimbabwe when the Sri Lankan selectors made two unexpected changes, resting vice-captain Marvan Atapattu and promising fast bowler Charitha Buddika Fernando.
Captain Sanath Jayasuriya was informed of the decision on Wednesday evening and is said to be silently fuming. Coach Dav Whatmore, who was already having a bad day with a severe stomach bug, was unavailable for comment.
Atapattu wants to play but the selectors decided that he should stand down to give middle order batsman Chamara Silva a chance after his match-winning century in Zimbabwe's only warm-up game. But the decision leaves Sri Lanka without a specialist opener.
Jayasuriya, somewhat perplexed, admitted they had been forced into a major re-think: "We haven't decided on the opener at the moment. We have to have a discussion and good think later with the coach. We don't have a specialist opener, but we have a few options, including Kumar Sangakkara and Russel Arnold."
Arnold is the favourite to open. Although unaccustomed to facing to the new ball now, he scored both of his Test centuries as an opener, before being moved down the order upon the advice of the selectors.
Fernando is rested in favour of fast bowler Prabath Nissanka, who is an exciting prospect with the ability to bowl with genuine pace, but he has been short of confidence recently and his selection is a gamble.
Jayasuriya, a keen fan of Nissanka, was nonetheless surprised: "Charitha (Buddika Fernando) was starting to bowl really well and needs to gain experience as we are grooming him for the future."
Zimbabwe will be delighted with the news. Desperately missing a specialist spinner, this Test, on a notoriously lively hill-country pitch, offers the tourists their best chance of securing a win. Suddenly, Sri Lanka, shorn of an experienced opener and clearly upset by an unnecessary distraction, are under pressure.
"We have to be careful," Jayasuriya warned. "Especially so in Kandy with the prevailing weather conditions. There is movement and swing here and the conditions are such that the fast bowlers tend to do well here. It's not going to be easy - they might come back and play well. There is now more responsibility and pressure on all of us."
Of course, Sri Lanka should still win. Zimbabwe were extremely poor in Colombo and the home team have a far superior reserve of talent. But Sri Lanka have lost three out of their last three Tests in Kandy, all of which should have been won according to the formbook.
Chairman of the selectors, Tikiri Banda Khelgamuwa, defended the selectors decision: "We have made the change in the best interests of Sri Lankan cricket. Sri Lanka has a long international calendar leading up to the 2003 world cup and we want to try out some new players.
"This series and the one against Bangladesh is the only opportunity for experimentation. We cannot throw youngsters in against England, South Africa and Australia."
According to the chairman Atapattu will return for the third Test in Galle where other players will be rested.
Stuart Carlisle, who remains as captain with leg-spinner Brian Murphy having returned home for treatment to a new hand injury, was optimistic that his side could comeback strongly.
"Its hard being one down but we will fight hard to comeback," he said. "Everyone is clear as to what they have to do and there is no point looking at the past. We have two Tests to go. We know about Sri Lanka's previous record in Kandy and we will be hoping that works in our favour.
He was also hopeful that his side could capitalise on the disarray in the Sri Lankan camp: "I am very surprised if it's true that they are going to drop Marvan Atapattu, who has two double hundreds in Kandy. That should be good for us - we have got to get in as early as possible."
Muttiah Muralitharan remains the greatest threat. "Against Murali we want to keep it as simple as possible - we don't want to over analyse. Guys have got to be relaxed at the crease, look to take a good stride in and play each ball on its merits.
Zimbabwe are considering one change to the side that lost comprehensively in Colombo, with off-spinning all-rounder Douglas Marillier included in a 12-man squad. The final eleven will be decided upon tomorrow.
Sanath Jayasuriya (capt), Mahela Jayawardene, Russel Arnold, Kumar Sangakkara, Chamara Silva, Hashan Tillakaratne, Thilan Samaraweera, Muttiah Muralitharan, Chaminda Vaas, Nuwan Zoysa, Prabath Nissanka
Stuart Carlisle (capt), Hamilton Masakadza, Grant Flower, Andy Flower, Gavin Rennie, Craig Wishart, Travis Friend, Henry Olonga, Heath Streak, Trevor Gripper, Gary Brent, Douglas Marillier