Sri Lanka's first Test tour of the West Indies, 16 years after being granted full status, provided a competitive mini-series in which the home team took the honours but not all the plaudits. The Sri Lankans had paid a brief visit a year earlier, to play a one-day international; this time they arrived in June, unusually late in the year, for two Tests. It was the first season since West Indies began hosting Tests in 1930 that two visiting teams had played Test series in the Caribbean; India had left a month earlier.
World Cup champions Sri Lanka had just chalked up another limited-overs triumph, in the Independence Cup in India, but were seeking to establish their credentials at the longer version of the game, so defeat in the solitary one-day international caused little concern. "We've proved ourselves in the one-day game," said captain Arjuna Ranatunga beforehand. "We now want to do that in the Tests."
By the end of the series, they were closer to that goal. They held first-innings advantage in both Tests but could not find the knockout punch to finish off West Indies when they were down. Each time, the home bowlers clawed their team back into contention, setting up victory in St. John's, and rescuing them from the brink at the picturesque Arnos Vale ground in St. Vincent, Test cricket's 78th and newest venue, which witnessed a gripping but rain-spoiled draw.
The Sri Lankans were disrupted before they arrived by the loss of front-line fast bowler Chaminda Vaas to a back injury. Fellow left-arm pacer Nuwan Zoysa, the promising teenager, also had back problems and returned home after one match. Their absence provided an opportunity for Ravindra Pushpakumara, who had been on the fringes of the Test side since 1994 but now emerged as the find of the tour. Pushpakumara, whose style was clearly modelled on Waqar Younis, made an early breakthrough in both Tests and claimed five wickets as the unpredictable West Indies batting was routed for 147 in the Second. Only the well-established Curtly Ambrose and Muttiah Muralitharan were more influential.
Muralitharan's prodigious off-breaks baffled the late-order batsmen especially and earned 16 wickets at 15.43. Ambrose thrilled his home crowd on the first day of the series by taking five to reach the coveted landmark of 300 Test wickets. Three West Indians had previously achieved the feat - his captain Courtney Walsh, coach Malcolm Marshall and Lance Gibbs. Walsh was the first to offer congratulations, and the other two were also present to welcome Ambrose into their company.
Once again, West Indies were betrayed by their batsmen. Shivnarine Chanderpaul, their leading scorer against India, was unavailable because of a neck injury and his reliability was clearly missed. Barbadian left-hander Floyd Reifer stepped in but did not look a Test No. 3, while the other specialists put together only one notable innings each. Brian Lara initially appeared uninterested, reporting late for duty before the First Test, for which he was fined half his match fee by team management, and scoring just five in his first three innings. When he put his mind to it, at the last time of asking, he scored a crucial hundred.
Hashan Tillekeratne's involvement in the series lasted only 15 minutes before his forearm was fractured by Walsh. Sri Lanka missed his consistency as much as West Indies missed Chanderpaul's. It was left to the left-handers, Sanath Jayasuriya and captain Arjuna Ranatunga, and the dashing Aravinda de Silva, to carry the batting. Once they were dismissed, a decisive collapse usually followed, leading to eventual defeat in the First Test and the surrender of a winning position in the Second.
With the Tests coming at the end of a protracted West Indian season, public interest was diminished; crowds, especially for St Vincent's maiden Test, were disappointing.
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