Whitewashers to whitewashees?
After a promising first day in Port Elizabeth things quickly unravelled for Sri Lanka, and that was meant to be the ground most suited to them. It does not bode well
If you are a Sri Lanka fan with plans to come to the picturesque Newlands ground to watch your team play in the New Year Test, perhaps you will think to do something more useful with your money, like feed it to a goat.
At Port Elizabeth, Sri Lanka's five-Test winning streak was punctured. The Australia-series bubble was popped. Reality set in.
In place of the optimism of the last few months in which five consecutive Tests were won and promising players bucketed down upon the island, there is now sudden fear the whitewashers could become whitewashees. Before the series, the Port Elizabeth pitch seemed the low-slow promised land. It was thought Sri Lanka could ease themselves into the series with manful batting and Rangana Herath's sleight of hand. Instead Herath's fingers took a battering, and the batsmen wound up nursing blows to their outside edges. Perhaps it was inevitable. Watching the edges of your bat blush redder and redder through the course of several weeks has recently become the essence of a Sri Lanka batsman's away tour.
You can see the parallels with the Australia series can't you? Due to a quirk of scheduling, that tour had begun in Pallekele, where Australia hoped to establish their dominance on one of the most seam-friendly pitches on the continent. Instead they were mugged by Sri Lanka's trio of spinners, and then were led down an alley and merrily stabbed, at Galle. At the SSC, the corpse was briefly reanimated only for Herath to draw his shiv and waddlingly chase Steven Smith and his men around the field again.
If Sri Lanka have failed to score 300 in Port Elizabeth, how will they fare at Newlands, where South Africa have never lost to an Asian team; where Sri Lanka themselves have been defeated soundly thrice (by an innings and infinity on one occasion)? The Wanderers, where the third Test is scheduled, is also spoken about by locals as a bouncy, high-altitude, cricketing abattoir. Will Sri Lanka make it down the hill alive? Perhaps the selectors' and management's most pressing question is what they can now do at No. 3. Since Sri Lanka's greatest Test batsman retired, the best remaining batsmen have been reluctant to bat there, as if the ghost of Kumar Sangakkara still haunts his old spot. Angelo Mathews likes it down there at No. 5, as he also fancies himself as a first-change bowler. Dinesh Chandimal prefers to take the gloves and come in at No. 6. Kusal Mendis' returns have been so much better at No. 4 that selectors are reluctant to move him. And Dhananjaya de Silva is still so green and goes so purringly at No. 7, there is a strong case for his retention there as well. The No. 3 spot has now chewed up at least three batsmen, and each time a new man plays a bad shot to get himself out, the ghost of Sangakkara can be seen cover-driving the same ball to the boundary. When a stumping chance is missed, as with Chandimal in the second innings, Sangakkara's ghost has so much time he collects the ball between butt cheeks and backs seductively into the wickets.
Strategic problems in the field - which had a long and lavish airing in England - have also re-emerged. Mathews' Plan A in Port Elizabeth seemed to be to attack conventionally with the seamers; Plan B was to wait endlessly for Plan A to work; while Plan C was to make fans want to throw themselves from tall buildings. Any semblance of energy fled the fielding effort. New batsmen were practically welcomed to the field with garlands and offers of massages. And the (mis)use of Herath was brought into relief by Faf du Plessis' excellent handling of a much less experienced spinner: Keshav Maharaj.
There are brief and brilliant glimpses of potential in this Sri Lanka squad, but on away tours, how atrociously it has been harnessed. If Sri Lanka don't activate the ability at their disposal, if they fail to prod consistency from batsmen, or fashion coherent tactics for their limited seam attack, they may as well find something more worthwhile to do with all their talented youth. Like feed them to a goat.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando