Sri Lanka's clinical bowling performance in the first Test in Galle is an indication that they are beginning to overcome two years of struggle. When Muttiah Muralitharan bowled his last ball in Test cricket in 2010, the question was how Sri Lanka would cope in the future. They didn't cope very well.
In 2010, the Sri Lankan attack that played India didn't look too bad on paper. Lasith Malinga was spearheading it, and Ajantha Mendis was their next big spin hope. Malinga, however, never played a Test after that home series and retired from the format a year later due to fitness problems. Mendis could never consistently recreate the form of his debut series against India in 2008 and fell out of contention. The scarcity of strike bowlers crippled Sri Lanka's ability to take 20 wickets in a Test.
Sri Lanka's performance since Murali retired was poor. After his last Test, they failed to win any of their next 15. They lost five and drew ten. Their bowling wasn't good enough to close out games. The turnaround, however, came in the most unlikely of countries - South Africa, where Sri Lanka had never won a Test.
After losing in Centurion, Sri Lanka hit back with a 208-run win in Durban. Left-arm spinner Rangana Herath took nine wickets and has been Sri Lanka's spearhead since. Herath played a part in setting up Sri Lanka's win against Pakistan in Galle, aided by contributions from Nuwan Kulasekara and Suraj Randiv.
Despite Kulasekara's success in one-day cricket, his Test career has been stop-start, playing 13 Tests over seven years. He lost his place at the end of 2009 and played a solitary game against West Indies in 2010. Suranga Lakmal became the preferred choice to partner Chanaka Welegedara. Kulasekara wasn't a part of the initial Test squad for South Africa in 2010-11 due to injury, but he recovered and was available for selection when the team was desperate for reinforcements midway through the series. He didn't play a Test in South Africa, though, and was not part of the home series against England earlier this year, despite his encouraging one-day form.
Kulasekara's performance in the limited-overs games against Pakistan made it hard for the selectors to not pick him for these Tests. In the absence of the injured Chanaka Welegedara in Galle, Kulasekara eased into his role as the pace spearhead and took five wickets. Speed is not his forte. Kulasekara relies on swing and cut, making him a tricky proposition especially for the right-handers. Like Chaminda Vaas, he has the sharp incoming delivery that forces the batsman to play, thereby creating opportunities for lbws and catches to slip. Batsmen often played down the wrong line and lost off stump.
All five of Kulasekara's wickets in Galle were of top-order batsmen. Four of them were early wickets and the fifth was that of Younis Khan, who had resisted and scored 87 runs during Pakistan's chase. His performance earned praise from Kumar Sangakkara.
"He [Kulasekara] is one of those quiet achievers who nobody notices," Sangakkata had said after the third day. "We missed him in the Test side. He has to become our Test spearhead. It's going to be hard on his body but he's got the character to do that. He moves the ball on almost every surface, pegs away."
Like Kulasekara isn't fast, Herath isn't a big turner of the ball, but has a mean arm ball. The 2009 home series against Pakistan was the making of Herath. He cut short his league cricket stint in England to join the squad as an emergency replacement for Murali and took 15 wickets. Like Kulasekara, Herath also took five wickets in Galle.
Sri Lanka's present Test attack is workmanlike, compared to the one led by Chaminda Vaas and Murali, which could blast through batting line-ups in home conditions. However, Kulasekara and Herath have improved and given Sri Lanka belief that they can start winning Tests more often.