How will Sri Lanka end their year of juddering gains?

Having swung from stomach-churning lows to giddying peaks all through 2019, how will they do on this most momentous tour?

Dimuth Karunaratne and Niroshan Dickwella are contrasting pillars of Sri Lanka's improving Test side

Dimuth Karunaratne and Niroshan Dickwella are contrasting pillars of Sri Lanka's improving Test side  •  Getty Images

Is stability overrated? Does continuity actually matter? Is form a good predictor of results? To what extent does form even exist anyway?
In one of Sri Lanka's wildest cricketing years yet - in which they've dived to stomach-churning lows and scaled giddying peaks, all in addition to sacking captains, firing managers, losing coaches, and hiring replacements for all of the above - they've charted a careening course around convention and spat hefty balls of saliva at common sense.
Is a seriously depleted and beleaguered team headed to a slaughter in South Africa, where another Asian side has just been monstered? Oh, look at that, Sri Lanka have snatched the series clean, 2-0, putting on some of the most imperious batting displays in years.
Is a heavily rain-affected Test headed for a draw, the first-innings only coming to a close on the fifth morning? Heh, no worries, Sri Lanka's batsmen will go down in a vortex of staggeringly aggressive strokes to surrender the Test.
So they've arrived in Pakistan now for a tour as momentous as they come, and we should expect what, exactly? The last time these teams met (in the UAE in 2017), Sri Lanka won 2-0, but that was in the age of Rangana Herath, who basically inhaled Pakistan wickets. The Sri Lanka of now, meanwhile, are not only missing a kick-ass spinner (with Dilruwan Perera having been modest in his three Tests this year), they are also without Suranga Lakmal, whose diligent line and length have lately been the rock upon which they have built numerous pleasing away performances. He was instrumental in February's victory in Port Elizabeth and last year's win in Barbados, but almost more important than those wickets is the control he provides, and his guidance of the younger quicks. Lahiru Kumara, Kasun Rajitha and Vishwa Fernando have good engines on them, but can they also be their own rudder?
The batting? In some ways, that's even more of a mystery. Lahiru Thirimanne, who averages 22.64 and has made seven 50-plus scores in 68 innings, may open the batting. Meanwhile, Dinesh Chandimal, who averages 41.86 and has more centuries than anyone else in the squad, is not a certainty in the XI (he was in the squad, but didn't play either of the Tests against New Zealand in August).
And yet, for all this upheaval, Sri Lanka have what amounts to a passing grade in Tests, in 2019. They've lost as many Tests as they've won, true, but the victories have left the greater impression, and have helped restore a little of the hope that was lost during galling failures in 2017 and 2018. It has felt like a year of juddering gains. Dimuth Karunaratne has seemed an inspiring presence as captain. Sri Lanka have won three out of the four Tests he has led. Even in the one they lost, Karunaratne had been off the field injured during the pivotal fourth day, in which New Zealand set themselves up for a victory push.
The likes of Vishwa, Oshada Fernando and Lasith Embuldeniya have all had breakout performances, and even wicketkeeper-batsman Niroshan Dickwella has produced innings that hint at… maybe not maturity exactly, but… growth? (The last time Sri Lanka played Tests against this opposition, it was strongly rumoured that Dickwella had harnessed Google Translate to sledge the Pakistan players in Urdu.) Meanwhile Dhananjaya de Silva's offspin has grown wilier, and the last Test in August saw him make his first hundred in 18 months.
It's tempting to suggest that a series win will help firm up Karunaratne's captaincy, and set him up as the newly-installed Mickey Arthur's long-term leadership partner. It was only months ago, after all, that the selectors were so impressed by Karunaratne's Test leadership that they handed him the ODI reins as well. But this is an era of extreme flux in Sri Lankan cricket. Other captains and coaches have seemed relatively secure in their posts at the top of the mountain, until, suddenly, oh crap, there they tumble, into the ravine. Victories are only mild protections against the sack. (Long-term contracts are even milder.)
Defeat though, like the 3-0 whitewash at the hands of England last November, could sour what low-key good vibes the Test team has built up. And if suddenly, on the back of a loss, the fickle folks at the board have yet another change of heart, then who knows?

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf