Tour review

Sri Lanka v Australia in Sri Lanka, 2011

Peter Lalor

Test matches (3): Sri Lanka 0, Australia 1
One-day internationals (5): Sri Lanka 2, Australia 3
Twenty20 internationals (2): Sri Lanka 2, Australia 0

Michael Clarke with the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy, Sri Lanka v Australia, 3rd Test, Colombo, 5th day, September 20, 2011
A safe pair of hands: Michael Clarke cradles the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy, awarded to the winner of Australia-Sri Lanka Test series. © AFP
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Series/Tournaments: Australia tour of Sri Lanka

Rarely has a tour been conceived amid such turmoil. A few weeks before it was due to start, Sri Lanka's cricketers awoke to find that their government had dismissed their board yet again. The Australians, meanwhile, were attending to things a little more cautiously via the auspices of the Australian Team Performance Review - or, as it became known, the Argus Report (the review was chaired by retired businessman Don Argus). Blood was to be let after the humiliating Ashes failure at home, and a price paid by selectors, coaches and players.

The baggy green had not been seen in Sri Lanka since early 2004, when Australia were at their most devastating, marching from country to country and humiliating at will. Then, the Sri Lankans were brushed aside 3-0. Now, the Australians arrived chastened to find themselves ranked fifth in the world, one place beneath their hosts. Seven years earlier, it had been Ricky Ponting's first series as Test captain. This time, Michael Clarke was in the same position, except that he was in charge of a relatively new-looking team trying out the latest batch of replacements for their departed warriors. Only Ponting remained from the Test team of 2004, while the Sri Lankans boasted five survivors.

Even so, the Australians, who had lost their reputation as well as their champions, still looked better placed than Sri Lanka, who had not won a Test since Muttiah Muralitharan retired from the five-day game in July 2010. A few weeks before the tour, Kumar Sangakkara had delivered the MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture. He spoke of the tsunami, the terror of Lahore, and made a few Australians stare at their feet as he described the no-balling of Muralitharan in their country as "an insult that would not be allowed to pass unavenged". He observed that the sports minister had the "unique" ability to overrule selectors and summarily dismiss the board... which he had just done. In more ways than one, Sri Lankan cricket had problems.

The navel-gazing of the Australians was no less intense. The selection panel was razed, the coaching staff thrown into uncertainty, and the team's recent efforts and spirit were questioned. The twilight zone the side inhabited was perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that Clarke, selector Greg Chappell and coach Tim Nielsen were charged with selection duties on the tour, with Chappell knowing he had been relieved of his post under the recommendations of the Argus Report, and Nielsen aware his position was about to be re- engineered. Conscious he would have to reapply should he wish to continue, he quit at the end of the tour.

And then there was the cricket. In the token Twenty20s, an Australian side led by Cameron White were twice undone by some distinctively Sri Lankan skills. In the first match, captain Tillekeratne Dilshan dusted off his extraordinary scoop to realise an unstoppable century. The responsibilities of office had prompted him to discard the shot, but a quick chat before the game with interim coach Rumesh Ratnayake encouraged its reinstatement - with devastating consequences. In the second match, Ajantha Mendis bamboozled the batsmen, spinning and flicking the ball this way and that to take six for 16.

That boded well for the one-day series, which Sri Lanka needed to win 4-1 to displace Australia at the top of the world rankings. But the Australians were too strong and won 3-2. The series proved little. Mitchell Johnson's six for 31 in the first match turned out to be a mirage; Ponting's unbeaten 90 in the second fell into a similar category. Upul Tharanga starred with bat and Lasith Malinga with ball in Sri Lanka's two wins, but neither featured in the Tests.

Australia began the Test series with an eye on regeneration after controversially abandoning the services of the reliable Simon Katich. The aim did not go unfulfilled, but the series belonged to one of the side's elder statesmen. Mike Hussey, uniquely, won the match award in all three Tests: he scored almost twice as many runs as any of his team-mates, and even took a couple of bonus wickets with his born-again oc- casional medium-pacers, while the catches he held made highlight reels. If Katich was dumped because of his age (36), Hussey, three months older, proved the folly of that reasoning.

Clarke craved a clean sweep in the Tests, but had to settle for 1-0. His side won on a graveyard at Galle that later incurred the wrath of the ICC, were denied by the weather at Pallekele, then by a Colombo pitch so docile it arguably deserved more opprobrium than at Galle. But the three newcomers all proved worthy of selection. The New South Wales fast-medium bowler Trent Copeland struck with his second ball and conceded only 2.1 runs per over, while curator-turned-off-spinner Nathan Lyon - after only four first-class appearances for South Australia and another in the pre-Test warm-up here - took a wicket with his first delivery, and five in his debut innings. Finally, when Ponting dashed home to be at the birth of his second child during the Second Test, Shaun Marsh was brought in to bat at No. 3. He found the seat so comfortable that Ponting dropped down a place on his return: watched by his father Geoff, the former Test opener who was unveiled as Sri Lanka's new coach shortly after the series, Shaun scored 141 in his first innings and 81 in the Third Test.

Dilshan had less to celebrate, though the debutant fast bowler Shaminda Eranga also took a wicket with his first ball. Mendis was surprisingly overlooked for the raging turner at Galle, then proved to be injured when called up for the Second Test. Sri Lanka struggled to score runs when needed and - with the exception of slow left-armer Rangana Herath, who claimed 16 wickets in two matches - to make inroads into Australia's batting. When the captain's impetuous batting was called to account, he characteristically announced he would change for nobody. Perhaps the strangest note for the Sri Lankans was struck in the Third Test, when Angelo Mathews finally scored his first Test century. But his caution as he approached the nineties - where he had twice previously come to grief - meant the home side squandered any chance of scoring quickly and forcing a result.

Ultimately, only Australia emerged with any sense that things might be improving, while Clarke's leadership proved creative and refreshing. Sri Lanka could take little from the series.

Match reports for

1st T20I: Sri Lanka v Australia at Pallekele, Aug 6, 2011
Report | Scorecard

2nd T20I: Sri Lanka v Australia at Pallekele, Aug 8, 2011
Report | Scorecard

1st ODI: Sri Lanka v Australia at Pallekele, Aug 10, 2011
Report | Scorecard

2nd ODI: Sri Lanka v Australia at Hambantota, Aug 14, 2011
Report | Scorecard

3rd ODI: Sri Lanka v Australia at Hambantota, Aug 16, 2011
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4th ODI: Sri Lanka v Australia at Colombo (RPS), Aug 20, 2011
Report | Scorecard

5th ODI: Sri Lanka v Australia at Colombo (RPS), Aug 22, 2011
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Tour Match: Sri Lanka Board XI v Australians at Colombo (PSS), Aug 25-27, 2011

1st Test: Sri Lanka v Australia at Galle, Aug 31-Sep 3, 2011
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2nd Test: Sri Lanka v Australia at Pallekele, Sep 8-12, 2011
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3rd Test: Sri Lanka v Australia at Colombo (SSC), Sep 16-20, 2011
Report | Scorecard

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