The West Indies undertook their third Test tour of Sri Lanka against a background of unprecedented controversy and confusion. The bitter, protracted row between the West Indian board and the players' association over sponsorship led to the late withdrawal of ten of the original squad of 13, including Brian Lara, Chris Gayle and Ramnaresh Sarwan.
When the board sought replacements, all but two members of the West Indies A team, which was coincidentally also on tour in Sri Lanka, signed a joint statement declining selection, only for six of them to change their minds and join the senior squad after all. This created such internal strife that the two teams had to be separated into different hotels in Colombo. Lindel Wright, the A-team's manager, revealed that his players were on the brink of abandoning their tour at one stage; there were also reports of a dressing-room bust-up during the second A-team Test.
Jayantha Dharmadasa, the head of Sri Lanka Cricket's interim committee, said that the postponement of the Test tour had been considered, but was ruled out as it would have led to "other complications". The West Indies board, meanwhile, fearful of an ICC fine if it cancelled, was committed to fulfilling the schedule.
In the circumstances, defeat in both Tests, and failure in the subsequent triangular one-day tournament, was hardly surprising. The 11 men used by Sri Lanka in the series boasted 528 Tests, 57 hundreds and 977 wickets between them; apart from the captain Shivnarine Chanderpaul's 86 Tests and 14 centuries, the remaining West Indians had the combined inexperience of 48 Tests, 113 wickets... and one solitary hundred.
It seemed a formula for embarrassingly one-sided contests, but the West Indians improved to the extent that, in their last two matches, they handed Sri Lanka their only defeat in the IndianOil Cup and were within a couple of boundaries of beating India to take their place in the final. Overall, the hastily assembled reserves did no worse than the full-strength team that lost all three Tests on the previous tour four years earlier, even though Lara scored 688 runs in that series.
The new-look side gave as good as they got in the first innings in both Tests, before their resistance disintegrated against two familiar destroyers, Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan. These two had mesmerised far more eminent batsmen than the West Indian novices, whose lack of technique and experience was starkly exposed by Vaas's left-arm swing and the offbreaks and doosras of Muralitharan, who was playing his first Tests in 11 months after a shoulder operation. After compiling 271 for six on the opening day of the series, the West Indies were dismissed for less than 150 in their three remaining innings.
The fast-bowling attack of Jermaine Lawson, Daren Powell and Tino Best, supported by exceptional close catching and by the impressive new wicketkeeper Denesh Ramdin, ensured that West Indies remained competitive despite their batting problems. Twice they claimed the first five wickets for under 100, and in the second innings of the First Test they had the first three down for 49 before the Sri Lankans steadied to reach their target of 172 for the loss of only one more wicket. Lawson, the tall, strongly built Jamaican who returned to the team for the first time since the 2004 England tour, was the most penetrative - but his bowling action, first reported two years previously, again attracted the censure of the match officials after the First Test. Although both Sri Lanka's victories were eventually comfortable, their toporder batting was unconvincing until a flawless unbeaten 157 from Kumar Sangakkara, the only hundred of the series, set up the victory in the second Test that was sealed by a stunning eight for 46 from Murali.
There was understandable disappointment in Sri Lanka at being denied the best available West Indies team, partly because it cost everyone the chance of seeing a rerun of the the classic 2001 duel between Lara and Muralitharan, and partly because it deprived the new coach, the Australian Tom Moody, of the chance to make a realistic assessment of his charges. But the tyros gained some respect, and before the final of the IndianOil Cup, Sri Lankan captain Marvan Atapattu said he was pleased to be facing India instead.
Match reports for
Sri Lanka Cricket XI v West Indians at Colombo (NCC), Jul 9-10, 2005
Tour Match: Central Province v West Indians at Kandy, Jul 28, 2005