Match Analysis

Overlooked Lakmal rediscovers his fire

In Sri Lanka, he is relentlessly looked down by the spinners, banished to some corner of the field. In Christchurch, Suranga Lakmal was a different beast

Suranga Lakmal celebrates with his team-mates, New Zealand v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Christchurch, 1st day, December 26, 2018

Suranga Lakmal celebrates with his team-mates  •  Getty Images

To be Suranga Lakmal on Sri Lankan tracks is to be more or less relentlessly looked down upon by spin bowlers.
Spinners to Lakmal: "Yes, we know you've played more Tests than most of the remainder of the attack, and of course your seam position is nice and your cutters are cute. But machan, look. You're a 'fast' bowler. These are dry tracks. We're all are glad that you ran in so hard and tried your best with the new ball. Oh, you got a little swing also? Really? Aney nice. But you run along now. Off to deep midwicket, machan. And don't you worry your seam-bowler's head - the big boys have got it from here. We'll call you back if we need you. We'll call you. We'll call you."
Spinners amongst themselves: "Poor fellow, no, that Suranga? Must be thinking he will get another bowl in this innings. Anyway, what to do? Seam bowler, no? Not clever like us."
Over the five most recent Tests in Sri Lanka, Lakmal bowled a total of 63.3 overs. That's roughly six overs per innings. In the vast majority of those occasions, he bowled a new-ball spell, and was virtually never heard from again. Imagine that. Being one of only four frontline bowlers in the XI, and yet, feeling like your main job is to bowl long enough to scratch up the leather on the ball to make it softer for the spinners' delicate little fingers to comfortably hold. You are basically a utensil. Human sandpaper. Cameron Bancroft might have used Suranga Lakmal in Cape Town, if only he had been able to surreptitiously stash Lakmal away in his undershorts.
What is truly remarkable, though, is that for four of those five Tests, Lakmal was himself the official captain, with Dinesh Chandimal either suspended or injured. In two of the eight bowling innings that Lakmal led, he did not bring himself on at all. In another, he bowled himself for a measly two overs.
It is almost as if the spinners have taken him captive, and so long has he been under their dominion, that he has developed a warped admiration for his captors. A bowling Stockholm syndrome. "There's not much point in me bowling myself on pitches like this," he has said at more than one press conference. "Especially not when we have so many quality spinners around."
But on a Hagley Oval greentop, on Boxing Day, Lakmal broke the spell. He rediscovered self-worth. He puffed his chest out. He took ownership. He played as if his own bowling was much more macho work than a spinner's could ever be, which it absolutely is. He even did what those self-important Sri Lankan spinners routinely do at home: bowl unchanged from an end through the duration of an entire session.
Twelve straight overs of Lakmal just plugging away on that good length, some balls darting this way, others jiving in the opposite direction. Lakmal's haul, before lunch, was four wickets for 18 from 12 consecutive overs. A full quarter of those overs were wicket maidens. He would later go on to complete a second career five-wicket haul.
In Sri Lanka, Lakmal is basically a utensil. Human sandpaper. Cameron Bancroft might have used Suranga Lakmal in Cape Town, if only he had been able to surreptitiously stash Lakmal away in his undershorts.
"With the start I got, I wanted to bowl even until they were all out," Lakmal said after play. "I didn't want to give anyone else the ball when I'm bowling that well. There are times when I almost forcefully kept the ball. And that's what we talked about before the game - that like we give the spinners a chance in Sri Lanka, they also have to give us a chance in a place like this. If they can do it at home, we have to do the job away. The fast bowlers have to look to get the 10 wickets.
"Soon as I got on the field today, I told Chandika Hathurusingha that I'd get five wickets in this match. So glad I was able to get there."
Two of the most devious deliveries in that opening spell got rid of two in-form left-handers: Tom Latham and Henry Nicholls. Latham got an away-seamer that he pushed at, and edged to second slip. Nicholls got one that connived the other way, surging between bat and pad to rattle the top of off stump. For the majority of his career, Lakmal has been a move-it-in-one-direction-only kind of guy, which sort of explains the career average (which is still above 40), and perhaps also the shortage of self-esteem.
"Moving it both ways is not something I've always been able to do," he said. "It's what I've been working on in the last four or five months. I can put extra pressure on the batsman now, because he now has to think about two different balls. That really helped me get five wickets."
There will of course be more Tests in Lakmal's career in which he is surplus to requirement. When the spinners will smile their condescending smiles and banish him to some corner of the field. But right now, at the front end of this long away season for Sri Lanka, Lakmal is experiencing something unfamiliar: the feeling of being desperately needed. On a pitch that suits him completely, he has responded well.
If Sri Lanka's batting collapses as dramatically as it threatened to do against the new ball on the first evening, perhaps Lakmal will be desperately needed again very soon.

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