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Warning signs for Australia ahead of litmus test against spin in Galle

The batters have stumbled in the ODIs and things are unlikely to get any easier

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
David Warner - "We were always expecting turning wickets so it's fantastic preparation for us"  •  AFP

David Warner - "We were always expecting turning wickets so it's fantastic preparation for us"  •  AFP

Knowing what's coming is one thing, playing it is something else entirely. There were some smiles from David Warner as he watched deliveries rip past his edge during the 99 he made in Colombo on Tuesday, but Australia's collapse that decided the ODI series has brought into sharp focus what they will need to combat for the rest of the tour.
Warner talked a good game afterwards, despite the series defeat, extoling the positives of Australia being challenged by Sri Lanka's phalanx of spinners, who bowled 43 overs in the fourth match, ahead of the two Tests in Galle which start next week.
"We were always expecting turning wickets so it's fantastic preparation for us," he said. "We actually love the fact that they're playing on the wickets back-to-back… that's what we want, we can't get that practice in the nets - the nets are green.
"For us it's great practice out in the middle with these dustbowls. It's going to be exciting for the Test matches in Galle because we know what we're going to get there. This is extreme spin; you don't usually see these type of wickets.
"You only see them here. India is completely different...they're actually good wickets [in India]. And they turn later on day three or four [of Tests]."
Warner was part of the Australia side that lost the Tests 3-0 during the 2016 tour of Sri Lanka. He made 163 runs at 27.16 in a series where only Steven Smith (average 41.16) and Shaun Marsh (average 76.50 from one Test) passed the 30-mark as the line-up was feasted on by Rangana Herath, who claimed 28 wickets at 12.75.
There is one ODI remaining, but thoughts are turning to the two Tests which begin next Wednesday. Before the tour, Marnus Labuschange said he had watched how Joe Root found success in Sri Lanka last year when he plundered 426 runs in the two-match series. Usman Khawaja, who has transformed his play against spin after struggling earlier in his career, shapes as a vital player after his prolific returns in Pakistan but it will likely be a steep learning curve for the likes of Cameron Green, Alex Carey and even Labuschagne.
Mitchell Marsh, another player who was on the 2016 tour and equaled Warner's tally of runs across the three matches, believes Australia's recent T20 World Cup success and the Test series win in Pakistan is evidence of how the batters have improved against spin.
"It's probably a little bit hard to say that now considering we're 3-1 down in this series, but I think if you look across the board all our players, especially in the white-ball team, we've all gained a lot of experience over the last couple of years and have improved dramatically playing spin," Marsh said. "It came out in the World Cup, the way we all played, and the Test team has some really good players of spin. Looking forward, the Test series is going to be a great one. We are obviously going to get bunsen burners, so it will be great to watch."
The 1-0 Test series victory in Pakistan earlier this year was a perfect of example of overcoming conditions that required the game to be taken deep on flat wickets. Australia kept using the term that it was a 15-day Test and they won it on the last one. Reverse swing became as much of a deciding factor as spin. However, Galle is likely to be different if recent history is anything to go by. The game could well move much faster.
Sri Lanka's current crop of spinners don't match Herath and they were poor on the recent tour of Bangladesh: Lasith Embuldeniya, Ramesh Mendis, Praveen Jayawickrama and Dhananjaya de Silva had combined figures of 3 for 536 as the pace bowlers, Kasun Rajitha and Asitha Fernando, secured victory.
However, if Australia want a glimpse of what could greet them, the last time Sri Lanka played in Galle is likely a better guide. In two matches against West Indies late last year, Embuldeniya, Mendis and Jayawickrama shared 38 wickets. The quick bowlers sent down just 27 overs across both matches. There is a thought, however, that under new head coach Chris Silverwood that pace may not be quite so forgotten.
It will be interesting whether any of the spinners who have troubled Australia in the ODIs are called up. Of the frontliners, only Wanindu Hasaranga has played Tests and he averages 100.75 from four matches. Along with Jeffrey Vandersay and Maheesh Theekshana they are viewed as white-ball specialists. Embuldeniya, with 71 wickets in 16 Tests, has shown glimpses of performing the Herath role, but does not have the same consistency. It is not out of the question that 19-year-old Dunith Wellalage gets a swift promotion.
Regardless of selection, whoever lines up for Sri Lanka, Australia know the challenge that will likely come their way. That does not mean it will be any easier. Galle may prove the litmus test of how far their playing of spin has come since 2016.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo