Sri Lanka arrived in November to provide the second and, according to most forecasts, the subsidiary act of the Australian summer, following Pakistan and the reincarnated Salim Malik. On their departure ten weeks later, Arjuna Ranatunga's men were so much the main event that the two countries' political leaders were forced to take note.
Sadly, government interest had less to do with the cricket than with the drama it generated. The three Tests barely qualified as contests. Mark Taylor's Australians were both professional and ruthless, winning by an innings and 36 runs in Perth, ten wickets in Melbourne and then by 148 runs in Adelaide. They landed another sweep, although Sri Lanka would argue just how clean it was, in the finals of the one-day World Series, which they won 2-0. But Sri Lanka's very presence in the finals was significant; West Indies, minus Brain Lara, failed to qualify.
Despite the lop-sided scorelines, public interest remained high and ultimately exceeded expectations. In Melbourne, the 55,239 who attended on Boxing Day bettered the equivalent crowd for England 12 months earlier, and a staggering 72,614 watched the first World Series final. The incendiary nature of the summer may have helped: there was certainly no lack of publicity, although it was overwhelmingly at Sri Lanka's expense. They were briefly convicted of doctoring the ball in the First Test, had their leading wicket-taker branded a chucker in the Second and played the Third under a thinly veiled threat to behave if Australia were not to pull out of their upcoming World Cup match in Colombo.
All the while, the Sri Lankans and their supporters, including a significant expatriate population, simmered over umpiring. The players' patience ran out in the one-day decider at Sydney in January, though by then they may have been itching for a dust-up. Several verbal and physical brushes, and probably the disappointment of defeat in a rain-shortened affair, led many Sri Lankans to snub Taylor's outstretched hand at the presentation in full public view. Although competition was stiff, it was probably the least savoury incident of the summer. Earlier that day, Shane Warne had talked about his fears as one of several Australians who had received a death threat. Craig McDermott was told to expect a diet of hand-grenades when he arrived in Colombo. Small wonder the Australian Cricket Board sought advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and that Sri Lanka mobilised diplomatic resources in an attempt to quell Australian alarm. Though it was a terrorist bomb unconnected with cricket that eventually persuaded the Australians not to go to Colombo, many players were pretty happy to have found an excuse.
Remarkably, up to and after the Sydney final, relations between the players on both sides were no more strained than in most international competition. But as the series wore on, the home team found themselves subject to increasing criticism from their own public. This was partly due to Australians' traditional support for the underdog, though Taylor, a staunch advocate of improved on-field behaviour, was hurt by the backlash. While his players were by no means perfect - Glenn McGrath, for one, needed to calm down a little - the street-smart Ranatunga was no angel either. Still, the players had less to answer for than some officers of the game.
The officials got things seriously wrong in the Perth Test. Umpires Khizar Hayat of Pakistan and Peter Parker of Queensland failed to impound the ball when they suspected interference and referee Graham Dowling, the former New Zealand captain, gave the impression that he had made his mind up that the Sri Lankans were guilty even before the post-match hearing began. ICC overturned his verdict.
When Muttiah Muralitharan was called for throwing by Australian umpire Darrell Hair on the first day of the Melbourne Test, both had a right to ask why the bowler had been able to negotiate 22 Tests, indeed his entire first-class career, in safety until then. Either Hair was wrong or some, if not all, of those who had not called Muralitharan in the past six years were. ICC divulged that umpires, via match referees, had expressed doubts about his legitimacy for more than two years. But Sri Lanka produced an array of doctors and biomechanists who declared the off-spinner in the clear. None said Muralitharan could not throw, but they argued that the elbow he had been unable to straighten completely since birth could create the visual illusion of a throw, a contention lost on most observers. It was certainly lost on Ross Emerson who, umpiring his first international ten days later, also no-balled Muralitharan repeatedly, even after the distraught bowler resorted to leg-spin. Instead of the intended celebration of the 25th anniversary of one-day internationals, the first such match under lights in Brisbane provided one of the short game's darkest hours. The umpires were booed from the field under police escort and Muralitharan did not play again on tour.
Not surprisingly, the cricket ran a distant second to the trouble all too often. The seeds that would grow into Sri Lanka's historic World Cup triumph within weeks were sown almost without notice. Romesh Kaluwitharana's blazing approach at the top of the one-day order offered some welcome relief but few thought it could last, let alone be embellished by Sanath Jayasuriya, although Jayasuriya's maiden Test century in Adelaide was a glorious thrash. Like the other two Sri Lankan centuries in the series, Jayasuriya's came in the second innings when the match was already all but lost. By contrast, each of Australia's five centuries came in the first innings, as did two 96s in Perth. The Sri Lankans simply could not bowl the Australians out, even before Muralitharan's demise. While the home side declared in every innings, losing 26 wickets in total at an average return of 72.11, Sri Lanka lost all 60 on offer at 28.16.
David Boon, who had played 107 Tests over 12 years, bid the international arena an emotional farewell in Adelaide after a fighting century in Melbourne, and Steve Waugh maintained his remarkable rate of ascent, scoring 362 for once out. McGrath pressed his case a world-class pace bowler with 21 wickets at 20.85 each. Of course, Sri Lanka's best paled by comparison. Hashan Tillekeratne and Asanka Gurusinha were the leading run-scorers - both passed 240 at just over 40 - while rising fast bowler Chaminda Vaas, who took time to regain confidence and top pace after a back injury, finally managed nine wickets at 41.22.
A. Ranatunga (Sinhalese SC) (captain) P. A. De Silva (Nondescripts CC) (vice-captain), H. D. P. K. Dharmasena (Bloomfield C and AC), C. I. Dunusinghe (Antonians SC), A. P. Gurusinha (Sinhalese SC), U. C. Hathurusinghe (Tamil Union), S. T. Jayasuriya (Bloomfield C and AC), R. S. Kaluwitharana (Galle CC), R. S. Mahanama (Bloomfield C and AC). M. Munasinghe (Sinhalese SC), M. Muralitharan (Tamil Union), K. R. Pushpakumara (Nondescripts CC), S. Ranatunga (Nondescripts CC), K. J. Silva (Sinhalese SC), H. P. Tillekeratne (Nondescripts CC), E. A. Upashantha (Colts CC), W. P. U. J. C. Vaas (Colts CC), G. P. Wickremasinghe (Sinhalese SC).
R. S. Kalpage (Bloomfield C and AC) joined the party after Muralitharan was no-balled for throwing.
Manager: L. R. D. Mendis. Coach: D. F. Whatmore.
Test matches - Played 3: Lost 3.
First-class matches - Played 5: Lost 4, Drawn 1.
Losses - Australia (3), Queensland.
Draw - Tasmania.
One-day internationals - Played 10: Won 4, Lost 6. Wins - Australia (2), West Indies (2). Losses- Australia (4), West Indies (2).
Other non-first-class matches - Played 2: Won 1, Lost 1. Win - Tasmania. Loss - Queensland.
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