Annual review: Sri Lanka January 4, 2005

Impressive results in a tragic year

Under Marvan Atapattu's strong leadership, Sri Lanka's fortunes looked up. Among their triumphs was the win in the Asia Cup © Getty Images

Memories of Sri Lanka's cricket in 2004 will fade quickly, though not because the year was uneventful. On the contrary it was an important and progressive year, but the tragic events on Boxing Day leave everything other than life and death seeming so meaningless. But if you can shake off your tsunami-inspired depression for a moment, you'll look back on a year of more triumph than disappointment, and a team that has grown visibly in stature since Marvan Atapattu took full charge of the leadership.

It all started badly, though, with Sri Lanka's first-ever home whitewash, against Australia. The final 3-0 scoreline hid the true competitiveness between the two sides, but it also accurately reflected Sri Lanka's weaknesses during crucial match-turning passages of play. Amazingly, Sri Lanka secured first-innings leads in all three games, but Australia's spirit and resolve was far stronger, and they slowly but surely grasped control of each game and then ruthlessly applied the killer blow. At Kandy, powered by Sanath Jayasuriya at his adrenaline-fuelled best, Sri Lanka came within a whisker of levelling the series but were ultimately outsmarted on the final morning.

The defeat left a bitter aftertaste, especially because Sri Lankans had expected their team to fare better after their rain-soaked series win in 1999 against Steve Waugh's team. Knives were being sharpened and Hashan Tillakaratne, the Test captain, was the natural fall guy. He resigned at the press conference that followed the final game. The decision to appoint Tillakaratne as a caretaker leader proved as misguided at the end as it seemed at the outset. Although he was an extremely determined batsman (and at 37 he is still searching for one final comeback), Tillakaratne was an insecure and uninspiring leader and the team stagnated under his charge.

So there was a silver lining to the humiliating whitewash. Atapattu's accession to the throne could be delayed no longer, and the team started to rebuild in Zimbabwe. A new approach was agreed upon that encouraged players to take greater responsibility for their preparation. The Tillakaratne focus on results, particularly the avoidance of defeat, was reduced and a lighter, more relaxed mood was encouraged. Practice sessions, for example, were snappier but more intense.

It took Atapattu just a handful of weeks, with back-up from his deputy Mahela Jayawardene, who gelled together the younger elements of the team well, and coach John Dyson, who was starting to win over those sceptical about his lack of top-class coaching experience, to pull together the team and reverse the decline. Atapattu may have developed a reputation for being shy and mild-mannered, but he proved to be a strong, clear-headed and straight-talking captain. There were no favourites in the dressing-room and all the players knew exactly what was required of them. A new togetherness soon became evident.

Muralitharan briefly took over as the highest wicket-taker in Tests, but was dogged by controversies over his bowling action © Getty Images

Zimbabwe, missing most of their senior players, provided predictably weak resistance and Sri Lanka duly held together their focus long enough to win the five one-dayers and two Tests with ease. But the tour will be remembered less for the quiet revival in the dressing-room, or the silverware won against schoolboys, and more for the chucking storm that had engulfed Muttiah Muralitharan and marred what should have been his proudest day, when he overtook Courtney Walsh's 519-wicket world record.

Chris Broad, the match referee, had waited for the last day of the last Test against Australia to report Murali's doosra as suspect. The decision created a furore in Sri Lanka, where there was disbelief that a third chucking controversy was now threatening Murali's career. The debate was emotional and, at times, regrettably racially tinged. But the biomechanical boffins at the University of Western Australia vindicated Broad's decision in the end, discovering an elbow bend far in excess of the permitted levels of tolerance.

But while Murali's detractors gloated "I told you so" with some glee, the situation was not so clear-cut. Murali's doosra may have been technically illegal, but there was a growing body of experts warning that the ICC's permitted tolerance levels were flawed. As the ICC Champions Trophy was to reveal later in the year, Murali was one of many bowlers, including those previously believed to have pure textbook actions, who were exceeding tolerance levels. In fact, Murali turned out to be one of the lesser offenders. The emotional doosra debate rumbled on for months, and only started to calm when the ICC agreed to a thorough review of the current laws.

Murali was so upset by the whole controversy, and so angered by the comments of Australia's Prime Minister John Howard, who labelled him a chucker, that he opted out of a two-Test tour to Darwin and Cairns in northern Australia in July. Sri Lanka struggled in his absence in the first Test, mainly because of the green seamer-friendly surface at Darwin, which suited Australia. However, helped by some fiery bowling from rookie Lasith Malinga, who caused a sensation with his weird round-arm action, they fought bravely for a draw in the second Test, a match that proved to be a turning point for the team in the year.

The Sri Lankans were forced to rush back quickly for the Asia Cup, the first such tournament for four years. The rapprochement between India and Pakistan created a window of opportunity for the Asian Cricket Council and a six-nation tournament was squeezed into an already congested summer. Thanks to a misconceived tournament structure the Sri Lankans were at least able to workout their jet-lag during a first round that mattered little. But after a rusty performance against an impressively spirited and well-organised UAE team, Sri Lanka hit a rich vein of form. India, the pre-tournament favourites, were struggling to regain their early-year form after a layoff and Sri Lanka seized the initiative. Murali had returned but his performances were overshadowed by the journeymen bowlers, Nuwan Zoysa and Upul Chandana, who helped Murali and Chaminda Vaas form a genuinely strong attack. With Sanath Jayasuriya finding one-day form after a lean run, Sri Lanka lifted the trophy.

By now, all was rosy in the Sri Lanka camp. The atmosphere was open and upbeat and in complete contrast to the guarded and introverted feel of a few months earlier. Even the board was starting to recover from an embarrassing start to the year when its president, Thilanga Sumathipala, was thrown behind bars after becoming embroiled in an immigration-fraud case. The new provincial tournament had been a success, providing a solid basis for lifting the standards of domestic cricket, and a new super-intensive programme for the A team ensured more exposure for upcoming players. The board was also able to safeguard its financial future, which had been imperilled by an ongoing legal dispute with WSG Nimbus, when Taj Television signed a new four-year deal worth $50 million.

Sanath Jayasuriya had an excellent year, which included a double-century against Pakistan at Faisalabad © Getty Images

Sri Lanka's good run continued against South Africa despite a shoulder injury to Murali. Jayawardene piled on the pressure at Galle, batting magnificently, but with Murali obviously struggling with his injury, South Africa escaped. In Colombo, though, this time powered by a brilliant double-century from Kumar Sangakkara, Sri Lanka were more ruthless and South Africa folded. The momentum was retained during the five-match ODI series and by the time the ICC Champions Trophy arrived, Sri Lanka's confidence was sky-high.

But Sri Lanka have never been renowned for their prowess in the freezing cold, and when the English weather turned autumnal their odds lengthened. Had their catching held firm at the Rose Bowl they might well have still prospered. But Jayawardene, ironically Sri Lanka's best slip catcher, grassed a simple chance off Andrew Flintoff early on, and Sri Lanka eventually lost control. Sri Lanka returned quickly to winning ways, stealing the PakTel Cup from Pakistan, the hosts, despite losses in the first round.

Then followed the biggest selection controversy of the year as Ashantha de Mel, the new chairman of an unwieldy seven-man selection committee, shocked the team management with a public attack, accusing them of standing in the way of the development of young players. de Mel, determined that youngsters be blooded, axed Tillakaratne Dilshan from the squad. The move incensed Atapattu, and helped Pakistan level the Test series at Karachi. Ironically, it was the elder statesman, Jayasuriya, who dominated the series in what proved to be one of his best years (1130 runs at 56.5). Jayasuriya was Sri Lanka's most successful Test batsman of the year, but Sangakkara (1114 runs at 55.7) was close behind, while Atapattu (966 runs at 48.3) and Jayawardene (861 runs at 45.32) also had good years.

The curtain fell with a limp performance against New Zealand, but as the Kiwis knocked off a measly target with ease, the giant tsunami reached the east coast of Sri Lanka and circled around the south coast and up the west. Within the space of a few overs more people had been killed than during two decades of civil war. Cricket was suddenly irrelevant, and Sri Lanka's players naturally wanted to return immediately to join the humanitarian effort. The year 2005 will be dominated by their contributions off the field.

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Sri Lanka in 2004

Charlie Austin is Sri Lankan editor of Cricinfo.