Not in anyone's wildest dreams could the painful revamping of Sri Lankan cricket have been so emphatically endorsed. The unwieldy and factionalised Board of Control had been tossed out and replaced by an interim committee of respected businessmen, the canny but difficult Arjuna Ranatunga was deposed as captain, and Dav Whatmore returned as coach. Building for the future, after three years basking in past glory, had become essential after a dreadful World Cup. Sanath Jayasuriya was appointed captain, while Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva were left out of the one-day side.
Bold moves indeed, because the Australians were coming. What would the World Cup champions and Test leaders do against such an unsettled side? Answer: receive the shock of their lives. An upset win over Australia in the final of the Aiwa Cup one-day competition was just the fillip Whatmore and Jayasuriya needed in their drive for youth and fitness. But it was surely an aberration. Australia, after all, had dominated the triangular tournament until then.
Nine days later, Australia tumbled to 60 for seven before lunch on the opening day of the First Test in Kandy. In a flash, the series was decided. Despite some heroics, Australia never recovered; the next two rain-marred games would be drawn. It was their first Test failure against Sri Lanka in 11 matches going back to their inaugural meeting, on the same ground, 16 years earlier.
There were two major factors in Sri Lanka's unexpected success: excellent and exhaustive preparation by Whatmore, assisted by physiotherapist Alex Kountouri, both Australian nationals, and the bowling of Muttiah Muralitharan. Whatever questions remained about his action, particularly the top-spinner, Muralitharan baffled most of the Australian batsmen. His wonderful control and use of flight on slow, turning pitches once again exposed their vulnerabilities on the subcontinent. "He turns it more than any other spinner going around at the moment and I guess we're facing something like the opposition has faced with Shane Warne over the years," said Australian captain Steve Waugh. The left-handed Justin Langer was the one most traumatised by Muralitharan, as the ball constantly turned across him.
Murali was easily the leading wicket-taker in the series, with 15, and might have doubled that if rain had not washed out much of the last two Tests. He was well supported by Chaminda Vaas, who claimed ten wickets. Sri Lanka's batting, however, revolved almost solely around de Silva, recalled alongside Ranatunga for the Tests. He was dismissed only twice in four innings and averaged 96.
But the Man of the Series was Ricky Ponting, with 253 runs at 84.33, including the only century on either side. The one Australian middle-order batsman to pass 50 in the series, doing so three times in four innings that stretched across almost ten hours, he was described by Steve Waugh as the future of Australian cricket. By contrast, Mark Waugh had another nightmare tour of Sri Lanka. In 1992-93, he averaged ten, finishing with four successive ducks. In 1999-2000, he averaged seven.
Warne reclaimed his place after being dropped for the last Test of the previous series, in the West Indies: he and off-spinner Colin Miller were Australia's most successful bowlers, with eight wickets each. Glenn McGrath, however, was out of sorts from the start and seized up completely late in the First Test; his under-used muscles became so tight that he could not bend and consequently missed a vital catch off Ranatunga. But Australia's misery at Kandy was epitomised by the loss of Jason Gillespie, who broke his right leg and injured his wrist in a dreadful on-field collision with Steve Waugh as they both went for a catch behind square leg. The fast bowler had been Australia's leading wicket-taker in the one-day tournament. A disastrous tour for injuries and illness continued when Gillespie's replacement, Scott Muller, split the webbing in his right hand four days after arriving and left again; meanwhile, Simon Katich, an uncapped left-handed batsman from Western Australia, was sent back to Colombo and put in isolation after being diagnosed with chicken-pox. Another departure was Geoff Marsh, who, having coached the side since 1996, resigned unexpectedly to spend more time with his family and returned to Australia after the Sri Lankan Tests. Former captain Allan Border was released from his television commitments so he could cover as coach for the Zimbabwean leg of the tour.
This was a tough time for Waugh as captain. Australia had underperformed in the West Indies, drawing 2-2 against weakened opponents. Had he been able to bat again in the Kandy Test, Australia might have scrambled a victory. Instead, he had a badly broken nose and was being flown by helicopter to a Colombo hospital with Gillespie; he could not even see his men go down fighting. However, Waugh insisted on returning for the Second Test. His presence was not enough to prevent another poor performance, but by the Third his side were playing the better cricket. The weather denied them in Colombo, having rescued them at Galle. As four of Australia's last six Tests on the island had now been ruined by rain, there was a good argument for them visiting Sri Lanka during April in future, rather than the monsoon months of August and September.
By the time they moved on to Zimbabwe for the overdue inaugural Test between the two countries, the Australians' cricket was back on song. Greeted by the dry warmth and big blue skies so typical of Australia, the players felt at home and performed accordingly, winning the only Test by ten wickets and crushing Zimbabwe 3-0 in the one-day series. Both Steve and Mark Waugh recaptured their form, with centuries in the Test and limited-overs games respectively, while McGrath picked up six Test wickets. Zimbabwe fought well, but were clearly outmatched and made basic mistakes at crucial moments. For the Australians, however, after their trials in Sri Lanka, the Test match marked the start of a record-breaking run of success. Note: Matches in this section which were not first-class are signified by a dagger.
Match reports for
Tour Match: Zimbabwe Cricket Union President's XI v Australians at Bulawayo, Oct 9-11, 1999
Match reports for
Sri Lanka Board President's XI v Australians at Colombo (SSC), Aug 19, 1999
Sri Lanka Board XI v Australians at Colombo (PSS), Sep 3-6, 1999
Sri Lanka Board XI v Australians at Colombo (CCC), Sep 17-19, 1999