Sri Lanka crush Zimbabwe but sterner tests lie ahead
Sri Lanka completed their third consecutive Test series win on Monday when they crushed a poor Zimbabwean side by an innings and 94 runs at Asgiriya International Stadium in Kandy.
It was a predictable outcome with the standard of Zimbabwe's cricket having plummeted to such depressingly low levels. The visitors could not compete with a rejuvenated Sri Lankan side in tailor-made conditions for Muttiah Muralitharan.
So, although the hosts deserve credit for having now one seven Tests in a row, setting new standards for the subcontinent, it was achieved against the weakest Test nations - Bangladesh, India, West Indies. Thus, it is of dubious relevance to a team whose cricket board aspires to a place in the top three.
In the coming year sterner tests lie ahead, with tours to England in early summer, South Africa and Australia. Only then can the true quality of Sanath Jayasuriya's side be accurately gauged.
Zimbabwean captain, Stuart Carlisle, was impressed with Sri Lanka but was not convinced that they can yet compete with the big boys abroad: "They are a really good unit and have a balanced young side. But it's not easy to place them because all seven wins have been at home, where they are extremely hard to beat - all teams struggle here."
He added: "The big test will be when they go overseas. In England and Australia where the ball moves around a bit off the seam I think they could be in a bit of trouble."
Sri Lankan coach Dav Whatmore's pleasure at winning was also brushed with realism: "Life is good at the moment but tougher examinations lie ahead and our feet are firmly on the ground."
"Nevertheless, it's reassuring that we are putting some consistent performances together. In the past we had the ability to be as good as anyone but on certain days we would throw it away and lose the Test match."
Zimbabwe threatened a brave fightback in the morning when Gavin Rennie (68) played boldly, hitting man of the match Muttiah Muralitharan out of the attack and cruising to his seventh Test fifty.
But on the brink of the first drinks break fast bowler Charitha Fernando, who fully justified his controversial inclusion against the wishes of the selectors with a four-wicket haul, found some reverse swing and trapped Andy Flower lbw for 11, ending a 58 run partnership for the fourth wicket (109 for four).
Fernando followed up with the wicket of the Rennie with a yorker-length delivery that swung back painfully onto the left-hander's boot.
Muralitharan, recalled into the attack from the other end, quickly disposed of Craig Wishart (3) who top-edged a sweep and was caught at short fine leg to leave Zimbabwe on 149 for six at lunch.
Again, after the interval, Zimbabwe briefly resisted before the reintroduction of Fernando precipitated the final collapse during which the last four wickets fell for 15 runs.
Grant Flower (21) gloved a catch behind as he tried to take evasive action, Douglas Marillier (9) was forced onto the back foot and trapped lbw by Muralitharan, Travis Friend was clean bowled for a duck and Henry Olonga (1) holed out at square leg.
Muralitharan was the deserved man of the match after picking up 13 for 115 in the game, which takes him to 395 Test victims in just 71 games with the prospect of him becoming the seventh man to the 400 mark in the final Test starting Saturday.
Clearly still hampered with his injured finger, he wore a protective casing whilst fielding, but is expected to play in Galle. Whatmore certainly thought so: "Knowing him, he would still play if he only had one leg."
Other changes to the Sri Lankan side are possible, to give exposure to the reserves, but skipper Jayasuriya appeared reluctant to make wholesale changes.
"We need back-up players but we can't make a big change because there is only one Test at home and it is important to give our regular players as much confidence as possible before we travel overseas," he said.