Sri Lanka in 2009 December 30, 2009

A whimper not a bang

Sri Lanka started 2009 on a high but finished it struggling to hold their footing as key players went missing

Think of a stick of dynamite with the fuse lit and ready to blow. That is what Sri Lanka were all year, a crackerjack side hinting at an explosion; but at the end of a dramatic 12 months the fuse just didn't seem ready to detonate. The end result was a whimper.

Sri Lanka rode into 2009 on the crest of the Ajantha Mendis wave and boosted by the knowledge they'd be playing five more Tests than the six they played in 2008. They had big series away and home lined up, a crop of new and rejuvenated players brimming with potential, and a serious shot at the No. 2 spot in Test cricket.

But at the end of the year, 2008's ICC Emerging Player of the Year was struggling to find a spot in the Test line-up and had been dropped from the ODI one, and Sri Lanka, having climbed to that No. 2 spot, had suffered a severe bout of vertigo.

Kumar Sangakkara, who took over the captaincy after Mahela Jayawardene relinquished it early in the year, found by December that the shine of his promising debut, one that hinted at a new and more aggressive direction, had faded as the months ticked over.

There were more lows (a limp display in the Champions Trophy, limited-overs series defeats to India at home, twice, and away to go with a 2-0 Test loss) than highs (a maiden Test series success over Pakistan at home and reaching the ICC World Twenty20 finals).

In statistical terms, the year was mixed. Of the 11 Tests played, five were won. Sri Lanka played five Test series, winning three and losing one (the fifth was aborted due to the horrific Lahore attacks). To emerge from that shocking assault, in which several players and coaching staff were injured, took spirit, courage and medical assistance. Sri Lanka did so fantastically, beating Pakistan in the return series, for the first time at home.

That win was Sri Lanka's most impressive achievement all year. Sangakkara's captaincy, the canny pace of new-ball pair Thilan Thushara and Nuwan Kulasekara, and the return of Rangana Herath stood out. Pakistan came hard at Sri Lanka, who went into the series with an inexperienced attack, a non-regular wicketkeeper, and under a new captain. But the extra responsibility was taken on by all and the team played very, very good cricket.

An expected series win over an overawed New Zealand followed, but the defeat against India was disheartening. They arrived in India in late 2009 ranked No. 2 in Tests, but the quest for a maiden win in India remained unfulfilled. Sangakkara, who bore the brunt of the criticism, stated that Sri Lanka were a better side than the 0-2 series scoreline indicated. The injuries, lost tosses and poor umpiring were not excuses, and Sri Lanka rounded off their 2009 Test year wondering how to lift their standards.

On an individual level the numbers were especially good for Thilan Samaraweera, the leading Test run-scorer in 2009, who began with twin double-centuries in Pakistan and continued in the same vein during the home summer, until he returned to India and struggled.

There were more lows (a limp display in the Champions Trophy, limited-overs series defeats to India home, twice, and away to go with a 2-0 Test loss) than highs (a maiden Test series success over Pakistan at home and reaching the ICC World Twenty20 finals)

Tillakaratne Dilshan did everything this year - keeping wicket, opening the batting in all three formats, and even opening the bowling in ODIs (and in an innings in Test cricket). He did not for a moment appear saddled by the pressure of opening, as six Test centuries attest to.

Like Samaweera and Dilshan, if not as impressively, Jayawardene and Sangakkara went past the 1000-mark in Tests for the year.

As for the bowlers, the biggest success story was Herath, who returned from the obscurity of the Staffordshire League in England to finish as Sri Lanka's leading wicket-taker in Tests this year. Herath completely overshadowed Mendis, who struggled for consistency and was played with ease in each of his seven Tests, which yielded him 18 wickets at 45.55.

In one-day cricket they had a win-loss ratio of 44% from the 27 games they played. Their form replicated that of 2008: in January-February they surrendered a series to India, lost the tri-series final to India at home, didn't make the second round of the Champions Trophy, and lost another ODI series in India. Of those 27 matches, 12 were against India, and they won just three.

The main reason, like last year, was their unpredictable batting. Sangakkara and Jayawardene managed only two centuries between them and much responsibility was piled on Dilshan. He responded as best he could, racking up 1000 runs at 55 and a strike rate of 103.19. He was the biggest thing to happen to Sri Lanka in 2009.

Most distressing for Sri Lanka was an inability to dominate in their own backyard. A 6-7 home ODI record in 2009 shattered their aura of invincibility and No. 7 in the ICC rankings is a fair indicator of where they stand.

On a managerial level the coach, Trevor Bayliss, lost the services of his assistant, Paul Farbrace, to his native Kent. Bayliss now has his work cut out: with Farbrace's replacement, Stuart Law, he needs to further develop a team that can perform in all three versions.

Sri Lanka have more questions than answers facing them in 2010. The opening remains a worry, because Tharanga Paranavitana, Malinda Warnapura and Michael Vandort do not look up to scratch in Tests. Muttiah Muralitharan's impending retirement and Mendis' drop in form leaves the spin cupboard almost bare, and there doesn't seem to be a genuine new fast bowler on the horizon. The core unit of players remains talented and very enthusiastic, but the attention and determination needs tweaking.

New kid on the block
Angelo Mathews made his Test and Twenty20 debuts this year, and showed plenty of promise. His new-ball spells played a big part in Sri Lanka's path to the final of the World Twenty20 - during which he also produced a stunning fielding effort - and capped a run-heavy domestic season with a call-up to the Test squad, where he slotted in nicely as the third seamer and produced a top score of 99.

Fading star
Statistically, this was Muralitharan's worst year. His 26 wickets from eight Tests cost 45.96 each and he had no five-wicket haul. In 1999 he took 24 wickets, but in two matches fewer and at 28.25, with a best of 5 for 71. In 16 ODIs this year he took 22 wickets at 29.45, with a best of 3 for 19. He finished his last overseas series with nine wickets - four in one innings - after conceding 591 runs.

High point
Beating Pakistan at home in Tests and ODIs. The success came because Sri Lanka made some crucial, bold decisions, both during the series and before it. Not all were universally acclaimed - dropping Chaminda Vaas (who announced his retirement shortly after), and having Dilshan keep wicket among them - but they worked in the end.

Low point
Losing 0-2 to India in India - mainly because of the lack of bowling firepower, and poor catching. Before leaving on the tour, Sangakkara spoke of winning "the last frontier", but that ambition was left unfulfilled, and the No. 2 Test spot was lost in the process.

What 2010 holds
Sri Lanka don't play a Test until October, when West Indies visit. For a side aspiring to be the best, that doesn't augur well. Sri Lanka enter 2010 with less optimism than they did 2009, largely because of the ICC's Future Tours Programme and their own board's inability to push for more Tests. In one-day cricket, the focus will be on developing a team for that little tournament called the World Cup, of which 12 games will be played at home.

Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo