How Lakmal became Sri Lanka's Mr Dependable

Suranga Lakmal rues a missed opportunity Getty Images

At the end of the Kolkata Test match, Suranga Lakmal won an award. Not Player of the Match, for which he was surely in the running, but [insert sponsor name] Bankable Player of the Match. It isn't an award that will live on forever in the ESPNcricinfo scorecard - sorry, Suranga - but it was, nonetheless, both well deserved and aptly named.

Over the last year or so, Sri Lanka have been able to bank on Lakmal. They know what they'll get with him. Since the start of their tour of South Africa last December, none of their fast bowlers has played in as many Tests as Lakmal. It is a reflection of his (relative) durability, at a time when being a Sri Lankan fast bowler has invariably meant being an injured Sri Lankan fast bowler, and of his consistency: in nine Tests in this period, he has taken 28 wickets at an average of 31.10, while giving away 2.90 per over. That economy rate is fairly standard in Test cricket, but it's relevant here because no other frontline Sri Lankan bowler in this period - not even Rangana Herath - has conceded less than three runs an over.

In these last nine Tests of his - he missed the home series against India in July-August with back spasms - Lakmal has grown into the bowler he had always threatened to become: accurate, persistent, and a proper menace when there is swing or seam available. Having feared for his Test future before the start of the 2016-17 South Africa tour - he began it with an average of 47.65 from 31 Tests - he came out of it with 12 wickets in three Tests, including a five-for in Port Elizabeth, and his confidence restored. He then played a key role in Sri Lanka's 2-0 series win against Pakistan in the UAE, with six wickets at 21.66, and at Eden Gardens did everything in his power to put Sri Lanka in a position to win a Test in India for the first time. That they did not was down to India's strength and resilience as a batting and bowling unit, and to deficiencies elsewhere in Sri Lanka's team.

Lakmal's upswing has coincided with a slight change in his action - he now bowls with a higher arm than before, which has allowed him to hit the seam with greater frequency. His performance in Kolkata was a clear reflection of this, particularly on the fifth morning when the sun was out and there was little of the cloud cover that had enabled him to swing the ball so dangerously in the first innings.

Instead, the threat to the batsmen now came from the cracks on the surface, which had opened up over the course of a sunny fourth day. Landing the ball on the seam accentuates the effect of cracks on the pitch, and Lakmal did so ball after ball.

In a riveting eight-over spell on the fifth morning, he sent back three high-quality batsmen, nipping one back to bowl KL Rahul through the gate, finding extra bounce to have Cheteshwar Pujara caught at backward point, and again finding inward movement from a perfect length to trap Ajinkya Rahane on the shuffle. In that time, India slipped from 192 for 1 to 213 for 4 - effectively 91 for 4 - and Lakmal, for the first time in his Test career, had picked up seven in a match.

In growing into a Test-match force over the last year or so, Lakmal has followed a trajectory similar to a couple of his contemporaries. Like Lakmal, Nuwan Pradeep, who has been rested from this India tour, has a career average in the 40s, but has picked up his performances of late, averaging 35.42 since the start of 2015. Dhammika Prasad averages just under 36 overall but took 53 wickets in 13 Tests at a world-class 26.41 between January 2014 and October 2015; since then, he has spent a long and frustrating time out of the side, battling persistent injuries.

It makes you wonder how good a pace attack Sri Lanka could have if all three - and the tall, fast and bouncy Dushmantha Chameera - were fully fit at the same time. It puts in perspective India's feat of ensuring that all their main fast bowlers, barring the odd niggle here and there, have remained fit through the last two years.

Sri Lanka, though, can only spend so much time envying their opponents. They have two more Tests left to play on this tour, two more Tests in conditions that should help the fast bowlers.

Two days before the second Test, the pitch at the VCA Stadium in Nagpur looked as green as the one in Eden Gardens. The soil here won't be the same as in Kolkata, and the overhead conditions are likely to be a lot warmer and drier, but there will still be help for the quicks. For Lakmal, it's another chance to keep landing that seam in just the right areas, and extend the upward trend of his career graph.