West Indies and Sri Lanka seek to end long wait
At the launch of West Indies' home season earlier this month, a senior official of the West Indies Cricket Board said its goal was to "regain the pinnacle of world cricket by 2012." Given West Indies' current form, and their results over the last ten years, they are probably a bit behind schedule. Yet if they are to start now, the portents are favourable: their last series victory against strong opposition, with due respect to Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, was in 2003 - at home against Sri Lanka.
Their last Test series showed a flicker of unprecedented promise when a fully fit fast-bowling attack led by a new captain, Chris Gayle, spurred West Indies on to their first-ever Test victory in South Africa in December 2007. That elation, however, was deflated by injuries to key members and they were crushed in the remaining two Tests, squandering the opportunity to record a historic series victory. That performance, though, led the management to retain Gayle as captain for the home series against Sri Lanka, though he was only a stop-gap replacement for the injured Ramnaresh Sarwan, who has now joined the ranks to bolster a middle-order heavily reliant on Shivnarine Chanderpaul.
On paper Sri Lanka will have a tough task combating the experience of Gayle, Sarwan and Chanderpaul; the hot and cold form of Marlon Samuels; and a three-pronged pace attack formed by Daren Powell, Fidel Edwards and Jerome Taylor. The attack could have been stronger if not for Pedro Collins' decision to choose county over country and honour his contract with Surrey. There were rumblings of three key players missing the Australia series because of lucrative IPL contracts but for the Tests against Sri Lanka, West Indies' squad is at full strength while their opponents aren't. A first-choice squad combined with the home advantage of quick pitches that would aid their fast bowlers could combine to produce the ideal scenario for West Indies to beat Sri Lanka, like they did in 2003. That, however, is in theory and theory counts for precious little.
To say Sri Lanka and West Indies have a rivalry would be over-stating the contest. Brian Lara and Muttiah Muralitharan have had their moments against each other but the history between the two countries has been astonishingly brief. Sri Lanka have been a Test-playing nation for 26 years but have played just ten Tests over four series against West Indies. They have a favourable overall record with five wins and two losses but all five wins were achieved in Sri Lanka. They are yet to win a Test in the Caribbean and the two defeats - one each in 1997 and 2003 - led to 1-0 series defeats.
However, to expect Sri Lanka to be a relatively easy opponent to beat away from home would be an injustice to the amount they've improved in the last two years. Their most recent results have been poor, a 2-0 defeat in the Tests in Australia and a awful CB Series, but in 2006, they drew a Test series in England and won the one-dayers 5-0 after which they drew the Test and one-day series in New Zealand. They also registered convincing Test wins at home against South Africa in 2006 and England in 2007.
Those victories were built around solid batting performances from experienced hands - Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene - and the reliable bowling partnership of Chaminda Vaas and Muralitharan. What has given Sri Lanka an edge in recent times is the development of Lasith Malinga and Dilhara Fernando as potent Test bowlers to back up Vaas and Murali. Their absence from the touring party to the West Indies will be felt if the new faces in the squad fail to grab opportunities caused by injury and change.
Malinga is out with a knee injury, Fernando with a long-standing ankle problem and Farveez Maharoof with a side strain. The depleted bowling resources adds to the responsibility borne by Vaas and Murali but presents the bench-strength bowlers - Ishara Amerasinghe, Thilan Thushara, Nuwan Kulasekara and Chanaka Welegedara - to stake a claim for a regular spot in the squad.
The major change to the squad, however, is the absence of Sanath Jayasuriya, who retired from Tests and was axed from the ODI squad, at the top of the order. Upul Tharanga has also been cut because of indifferent form, which means that Sri Lanka will open with the inexperienced pairing of Malinda Warnapura and Michael Vandort. Warnapura scored 132 and 50 in a warm-up match against Guyana but the bowling attack he faced comprised of several under-19 players and was below the standard that awaits in the Test series.
Given the unpredictable form of West Indies and the fact that they have their three most experienced batsmen back in the side to balance their pace attack, they should have enough to match a below-full strength Sri Lankan outfit, who will rely heavily on the batting of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara and the brilliance of Muttiah Muralitharan. The downside is that the two-Test appetizer could be over just as the contest heats up.
George Binoy is a staff writer at Cricinfo