The day after South Africa arrived in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Premier League's franchise owners missed their second payment deadline, and slammed the door on the tournament's second edition. Sri Lanka Cricket had not quite moved mountains to secure a window for their cash cow, but they had postponed the Test leg of South Africa's tour to 2015. As a one-sided ODI series has helped make clear, SLC's disregard for Tests has robbed Sri Lanka of a genuine chance at toppling Test cricket's best team.
Sri Lanka are now ranked seventh in the world in Tests. In 2012-13, they had an abysmal tour of Australia, losing all three Tests comfortably on the most high-profile tour they have had in years. They were uninspiring at home, throwing away a 1-0 lead against New Zealand, and allowing Bangladesh to muster a draw on a featherbed in Galle. Yet, despite the team's shortcomings, Sri Lanka's ranking has also been a victim of SLC's contempt for the format.
In 2012, four Tests were removed from the schedule: one against England, that clashed with the IPL's schedule in March, and three against India, which were replaced by an ODI series that bordered on disastrous for the home side. The effects of culling the Test against England are yet to be felt in full. Sri Lanka's reciprocal tour of England in 2014 will also now have only two Tests. In 2013, Sri Lanka were only too happy to acquiesce when the West Indies Cricket Board wished to free up its own players for the IPL, and sought to replace the scheduled bilateral tour with an ODI tri-series. When that tri-series and the window already set aside for the SLPL then made a full South Africa tour untenable, the Tests, predictably, were relocated to a vaguely defined period in the future.
While it's true that only a few men in the South Africa side that have been demolished in Sri Lanka also take their whites on tour (and perhaps they are better at red-ball cricket, anyway), there can be little doubt that a three-match series would have been more competitive than the teams' disparate rankings suggest.
South Africa's troubles with playing and producing good spin bowling have been the most conspicuous contributors to their dismay in Sri Lanka and, in a country that presents a distinctive challenge to bowlers and batsmen, Sri Lanka are well placed to exploit the widest chink in South Africa's cricket. Robin Peterson had been South Africa's frontline spinner in their last Test series against Pakistan, but on pitches as helpful as any he might bowl on, the ease with which Sri Lanka's batsmen played him might have caused particular worry in the South Africa side if Tests were to follow.
Sri Lanka have also been something of a bogey team for South Africa in the past. South Africa have established a 15-Test unbeaten streak in the last 18 months, but Sri Lanka are the last side to have defeated them, in Durban in 2011. Their unbeaten streak in away series - which stretches all the way back to 2006 - is also a feather in their cap of dominance. Even then, the last side that had bested them was Sri Lanka, in a 2-0 win. Hashim Amla, AB de Villers and Dale Steyn are vastly improved players now, but even so, chasing leather for over two days as Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara amassed the largest partnership of all time in Colombo, must count among their least favourite cricketing memories.
"We saw how much South Africa didn't like our spinners, our climate and our pitches in the one-dayers," Sangakkara said, after Sri Lanka completed a 4-1 victory in the ODIs. "If we had the chance to play them in Tests here, and if we had won, our ranking would have risen. There is a Test championship in 2017. If we had been able to play at home, where we have such an advantage, it would have been a great thing."
SLC offers up its financial disarray as justification for its policy of Test abandonment, but the same forces that drove the board into the fiscal abyss still make the plays at Maitland Place. The board will claim it is not at fault for the SLPL's demise this year, but the tournament had failed to appear financially viable from the outset, and has now become the most high-profile victim of a regional cooling on Twenty20 leagues, following the IPL's sixth-season scandals.
The opportunity cost of postponing the Tests may not make a major difference to SLC's ledger, but it has robbed the sport of what promised to be a fascinating battle, and has led Sri Lanka down a path of Test mediocrity.