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From farce to fierce

We've all laughed at Sri Lanka's transition this year, so to begin with, let's get a few gags out of the way.

In the first half of 2016, Sri Lanka's transition was into more transition. In the first half of 2016, Sri Lanka transitioned from being a competitive side into a crap one. They meandered, they squandered winning positions - some players regressed. If that Sri Lanka team had been in charge of our evolution from apes, we would all by now be sea slugs.

Having failed in February's Asia Cup, they lowered expectations to the bottom floor, then, at the World T20, went about crashing through to the basement. They made an artform of slapstick fielding; it was like Charlie Chaplin was their coach. They high-fived the ball instead of catching it. They kicked it. They chest-bumped it. They danced flailingly around it like it was the wooden idol in a tribal ritual. At least in an I'm-laughing-because-otherwise-I'd-have-to-cry kind of way, they were fun to watch.

In the Test at Headingley, on a green altar of seam bowling, batsmen made an obeisant offering of edges to collect scores of 91 all out and 119 all out. There was resurgence in Chester-le-Street, but not before the game - and the series - had already been surrendered in the first innings. When they returned from England having suffered another limited-overs battering, then plunged to 117 all out in the first innings of the home series against Australia, the final fragments of hope were beginning to dwindle.

But how emphatically they made the turn. Kusal Mendis had been playing in the little-loved Moin-ud-Dowlah tournament only a year before, but on day three in Pallekele he produced one of the greatest Sri Lankan Test innings, to hoist his team out of the gutter. He quelled Mitchell Starc, attacked Josh Hazlewood, muted Nathan Lyon, and finished with 176 in a Test where no one else managed more than 55. When Rangana Herath polished the victory off in masterful style, joy had begun flooding back.

The best thing about the whitewash of Australia was the quintessential Sri Lankan-ness of it all. Consider the heroes: Mendis, the 21-year-old son of a doting Moratuwa three-wheeler driver; Herath, the 38-year-old kegful of Waduwawa man; Dhananjaya de Silva, who bats like he is slung in a hammock on southern beach near where he grew up; Lakshan Sandakan, the big-turning surprise spinner, and the first Asian left-arm wristspinner to play Tests. Together they achieved a dominance over Australia that even the best Sri Lankan teams could scarcely imagine.

Two Test wins over Zimbabwe followed, and ahead of a South Africa series now, there is hope. Major flaws remain: the pace attack is constantly wracked with injury, the Test openers are unsteady, Lasith Malinga's absence in limited-overs cricket is sorely felt. But there is optimism that in recent months the raw materials of what could be a good team have come together. A year of stiff tests awaits.

On the administration front, Sri Lanka Cricket is now in the grips of political showmen - sultans of the pre-series tamasha, caliphs of the hour-long press conference, and emperors of the self-congratulatory media release. These folks love to be seen to be doing a good job, even if - and let us appreciate that this does not come easy to most SLC officials - it occasionally takes actually doing a good job to achieve that.

Among their wins was the salvation of Kusal Perera, and the hiring of Graham Ford as head coach. Among their failures was the continuing sorry state of domestic cricket, the pointless en-masse flocking to London for the Lord's Test, and their general participation in a bloated, inept and dysfunctional organisation.

They are certainly not the worst Sri Lanka board in recent years. But they remain, you know, SLC.

High point
The SSC win to seal the 3-0 win over Australia was great, but it was in Galle that Sri Lanka were at their most predatory, having virtually won the match by lunch on the second day. A Mendis 86 helped Sri Lanka to 281 on a tough pitch, then the spinners went to work and it was basically a blur of wickets after that. So good were Dilruwan Perera and Herath that they virtually made two of Sri Lanka's four front-line bowling options superfluous for much of this game. It was all over before tea on day three. Angelo Mathews even reviewed effectively.

Low point
The World T20 title defence, in which Sri Lanka mustered victory over Afghanistan, but lost to West Indies, England and South Africa. Without Malinga helming the attack and with no pep in their game, Sri Lanka were unrecognisable from the side that had dominated the shortest format between 2012 and 2015. The bowling of legspinner Jeffrey Vandersay was perhaps the sole positive.

New kid on the block
Who else but Mendis, who brings composure, style and efficiency to his work, and at the end of it all appears completely unaffected by the hype. It is in Tests that he will perhaps be most valuable to Sri Lanka, but he has begun to string together some excellent ODI performances as well, most notably in the tri-series in Zimbabwe, in which scores of 94 and 57 in crunch matches won him the Player-of-the-Tournament prize.

Fading star
Malinga has not been at his best since 2014, when his leg injuries began to flare up again - the ailments not helped by his extra weight. He is back in training after surgery on his ankle this year, but whether he will return the same match-winning bowler remains to be seen.

What 2017 holds
Following the full tour to South Africa, which concludes at the end of January, a two-Test home series against Bangladesh is being planned for March. After the Champions Trophy, home Tests against Zimbabwe and India are tentatively scheduled, before a three-Test away series against Pakistan in October. Then they head to South Africa again. If all the cricket is played as scheduled, Sri Lanka may play as many as 13 Tests in the year.