Charlie Austin

A voyage of self-discovery

Sri Lanka were not only competitive during their tour of England, they finished the dominant team, their confidence at sky-high after what proved to be a voyage of self-discovery


Marvan Atapattu missed Sri Lanka's tour of England but Sri Lanka were superbly led in his absence by Mahela Jayawardene © Getty Images
When Sri Lanka arrived in England after a difficult, inconsistent six months the pre-tour talk was all about a "learning experience". The team management hoped young players would develop and the team would be "competitive". However, these expectations were far exceeded. Sri Lanka were not only competitive, they finished the dominant team, their confidence at sky-high after what proved to be a voyage of self-discovery. During recent weeks they have played joyous, spirited, intelligent and at times ruthless cricket. The team, united as one, now has the self-belief again to play with the natural flair that has traditionally been their strength.
When they arrive home - after a short tour of Holland that was agreed without proper consideration of the now exhausted players - they do so with real aspirations of mounting a strong challenge at next year's World Cup. Perhaps more importantly, they will never again leave home shores for overseas tours with trepidation. In the past they have wilted in foreign conditions, especially outside of Asia, but now they have proved to themselves that they can be successful abroad. After defeats by India, New Zealand, Australia and Pakistan since last October, there is light at the end of the tunnel for a team in transition. A new era beckons.
Sri Lanka's miraculous escape at Lord's, one of the great rearguards in the game's history, was clearly the moment that changed their tour. Inspired by Mahela Jayawardene but ably supported by his team-mates, it was a Sri Lankan Dunkirk; a backs-to-the-wall effort that rescued the team from apparent catastrophe, invigorating the players and lifting pressure from their shoulders. After their meek first innings collapse, knives were being sharpened back home. While supporters understood that England were overwhelming favourites on home soil, a submissive surrender would prompted a tirade of criticism.
The escape was followed by defeat at Edgbaston but a new fighting spirit had permeated their cricket. They fought tooth-and-nail during that game and when they left they realised that the gap between the two sides was closing fast. A few more runs and a dollop more luck would have been sufficient to post a testing lead. So when they arrived in Trent Bridge they really sensed an opportunity to level the series. They were not bemoaning their ill-fortune and making excuses, they were focused on how to dismantle England's batting. They made their task harder with a poor first day but then clawed their way back, refusing to lie-down. They out-played and out-witted England for the next few days, manoeuvring themselves into a position where Muttiah Muralitharan was able to parade his brilliance with devastating effect.

Upul Tharanga 'started the tour as an exciting but unpolished prospect, but by the end he was transformed' © Getty Images
The key thread in all these Tests was a tenaciousness and determination that allowed them to stay afloat. Sri Lanka teams of the past have too frequently crumbled in similar circumstances. While their supporters may have lost faith, they ploughed on heroically, still believing that they could win the game. It is this fighting spirit that provides the greatest hope for the future. The team is being filled with natural winners, young men who have the mental resilience to compete during the most heated moments of battle. Sri Lanka has always been an island of plenty talent but the challenge has always been in the mind. As Dav Whatmore always used to say: "We have the hardware - my job is to sort out the software".
By the time the ODI series arrived Sri Lanka were on a high. England, with Andrew Flintoff, were vulnerable. Most English pundits still labelled the home team as the favourites, but a confident and happy Sri Lanka squad is a formidable thing in the limited overs game. They are immensely experienced in this format and have a finely tuned system for winning matches. With the weather good and the pitches dry, England were facing a far stiffer challenge than they realised. Sri Lanka's performance during the 5-0 whitewash, England's heaviest home defeat in 13 years, was, some sloppy fielding in a couple of games aside, consistently excellent. On some occasions it was breathtaking. England, it is true, were handicapped by the lose of key personnel, but Sri Lanka also missed Marvan Atapattu and, for most of the series, Muttiah Muralitharan. Sri Lanka's injury woes were still not as bad but this should not distract too much from the sheer quality of their cricket, the most exciting facet of which was their willingness to be aggressive and take risks.
Sri Lanka have made it clear that they believe that PowerPlays are vital to their success at next year's World Cup. They realise they have dangerous strikers at the top of the order but less firepower for the latter overs. They believe that the easiest way to post or chase big totals is to ruthlessly exploit fielding restrictions. And as the old adage goes, if you are going to do something, do it properly. So rather than fling one batsman up the order to do some pinch-hitting, they gave their top three batsmen free licence to attack. They also re-jigged the top order, concluding, at last, that Jayawardene's attacking skills are wasted during the middle overs where you need workmanlike nudgers and not serene strokeplayers.
Having decided upon their PowerPlay specialists, they then identified the weak-links in England's bowling line-up. England bowled dreadfully in the series but Sri Lanka's top three played a part in this by ruthlessly, at times cruelly, targeting the likes of Sajid Mahmood, Tim Bresnan and Kabir Ali. The plan was simple: destroy their confidence; break the man and then feed greedily for the rest of the series. The strategy worked and by the end England's bowlers were broken. Any attack that lets its opponents gallop home chasing 322 with 12.3 overs to spare is in a sorry state. Pakistan will be sending thank-you cards to their Asian brothers.

Despite batting, and captaining, Sri Lanka to success this summer, Mahela Jayawardene was at pains to point out he is a stand-in captain: 'I'm more that happy to play under Marvan [Atapattu]. He is the one that started the transformation of this team by creating the environment in which the youngsters could thrive' © Getty Images
The return of Sri Lanka's famed audaciousness was made possible because of several factors, the first being the decision to encourage the young players to display their natural flair. The senior players were to shoulder responsibility and the younger players were allowed to enjoy themselves. Upul Tharanga, the brightest success story of the tour, was the greatest beneficiary. Backed by the team management, told to play his strokes and trust his talent, he started the tour as an exciting but unpolished prospect, but by the end he was transformed. Diffidence outside his off-stump had been replaced by dazzling cover-driving. He left a boy and returned a man. Tharanga will surely open the innings for the next ten years.
Ironically, the injury to Marvan Atapattu also paved the away for Sri Lanka's new boldness, making room for greater firepower at the top. The key question now is where should he bat should he be able to play again - a big if. The Jayasuriya-Tharanga partnership is too dangerous to dismantle and Jayawardene has proved his value at No 3 with two fine hundreds. For the last four years he has languished in the middle order because the management felt it balanced the team. But it was a waste of talent. It is no coincidence that his last hundred before his twin-effort in this series, four years ago in Kandy after the famous Atapattu-Lara fielding collision, was also at No 3. Atapattu will therefore need to bat at Nos. 4, 5 or 6, a safety-net if the pinch-hitting backfires.
Whether Atapattu should return as captain is also now a difficult question for Jayawardene's leadership, on and off the field, has been outstanding. His critics had predicted that extra responsibility would cripple his batting but in the end it elevated it to new heights. At times he was masterful, a class apart. His canniness on the field also contributed greatly to Sri Lanka's success. Assisted by Moody, Trevor Penny - both of whom used their intimate knowledge of English cricket expertly - and Sangakkara, Jayawardene made England's batsman work hard for every run. Weaknesses were ruthlessly probed and field settings were meticulously set.
But Jayawardene has been at pains to point out that he is just a "stand-in" captain. Asked at the tour end about Atapattu and the captaincy, he said: "I'm more that happy to play under Marvan. He is the one that started the transformation of this team by creating the environment in which the youngsters could thrive". Jayawardene and Sangakkara have continued his theme, demanding hard work and commitment but allowing too for fun. After all, only a happy, united team will truly fulfil its talent. Sri Lanka were a happy side this summer.
With cricket board elections now due, we can only hope that common sense will prevail and Moody's team will still be given the backing and responsibility to continue developing the team. It is essential that the administrators do not now derail a train that is heading in the right direction. Moody, being a foreign coach, will also have vocal critics but he has built-up an excellent support team. Under his guidance the youngsters - especially Tharanga and Lasith Malinga on this tour - are progressing fast, a fact not lost on several senior English cricketers looking forwards towards to the post-Fletcher era. Sri Lanka must look after Moody carefully because if he is not treated properly then he will soon be poached away.
While the future suddenly looks so promising, everyone involves with Sri Lanka's cricket knows that there remains much work to be done. The challenge is now to build and develop on one of Sri Lanka's most successful foreign tours in its 25-year history. First, though, the players can enjoy a rest. It is well-deserved.

Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent