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News Analysis

Sri Lanka's top order can't just sweep away their problems

With Nathan Lyon's extra bounce a particular threat, the batters need to make use of other options

Kusal Mendis sweeps, Sri Lanka vs Australia, 1st Test, Galle, 3rd day, July 1, 2022

Kusal Mendis is a fine sweeper, but Sri Lanka's batters need to pick their moments  •  Getty Images

It's not just about sweeping, surely? There's more to batting on turning surfaces than that. Sweeping is how Australia got to their last victory. And perhaps how Joe Root did it against Sri Lanka in Galle last year. Sure. But there's more to life on turning pitches than that. Especially when you have a world beating spinner in the opposition.
Perhaps they know this already, to be honest. Dimuth Karunaratne has played 27 innings at Galle. Dinesh Chandimal 26. Sixteen of Kusal Mendis innings are at this venue. Dhananjaya de Silva, who is now out with Covid-19, 14. Niroshan Dickwella, 16.
Even without Dhananjaya, that's 85 Galle outings between them. And yet, a top seven containing these five batters, stumbled in consecutive innings, leading to scores of 212 all out, and then an utterly embarrassing 113 all out inside 23 overs. (Angelo Mathews, who has 41 innings at Galle, wasn't included here, because he tested positive for Covid and didn't bat in the second dig.)
These are clearly not inexperienced batters. They are especially not inexperienced at this venue, by innings-per-venue standards. They'd also won the toss in that first Test, meaning they had enjoyed the best batting conditions. Yet, so many batted as if they had no effective plan on the pitch Sri Lanka batters play on the most.
By the second innings, several regarded the sweep and its variations (paddle, reverse, slog) their only scoring options. The result was an air of panic and haplessness to their work. As if they were the line-up with batters playing on a pitch like this for the first time. This is after Cameron Green had top-scored in the match, in his first Test knock in Sri Lanka.
The major caveat here, is that Sri Lanka were playing an attack far superior to the one they themselves put up. Aside from Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc, who have each had excellent results in Asia, Australia have Nathan Lyon - the most successful fingerspinner their nation has ever produced. Lyon took a match-high 9 for 121, and was easily the best bowler on show, varying his speed and angle, rarely delivering the kind of out-of-control deliveries the Sri Lanka spinners frequently threw up.
Most importantly, though, Lyon puts substantial overspin on the ball, which means he gets more bounce, which in turn means he is more difficult to sweep. As Karunaratne said following that match, cross-bat shots against balls that bounce more than expected always carry the risk of taking the top edge. In that abysmal second innings, three of Lyon's wickets came from batters top-edging the sweep.
Which makes you kind of question the whole thing. In this Sri Lanka side, Kusal Mendis is an exceptional sweeper of the ball, and Chandimal is almost as good. But they have other options. Coming down the track is one. Hanging back deep in the crease is another. There are other shots. Clips through midwicket. Pokes through square leg. If you're a leftie, as Karunaratne and Dickwella are, making of space and a chop square on the off side are also options.
But these are not things that these batters need to be told. They have already put a lot of this into practice. Karunaratne has exceptional hundreds on wildly turning wickets, at the SSC, and in Bengaluru, against R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. He rarely used his sweep or any of its variants in either innings, relying instead on his flicks, jaunts down the track, and squirts through point.
In the second innings, he was out to the sweep against Lyon, but it was not the top edge that brought his demise - it was the bottom edge. It is likely he overcompensated, figuring that even if he got a bottom-edge to this ball, bottom-edges are rarely caught, because wicketkeepers are usually anticipating edges that go in the opposite direction. Alex Carey managed to get his gloves around this chance. But in any case, Karunaratne will perhaps be wary of trying the sweep against Lyon at all in the second Test, even if, as he said, he was trying to move Lyon's fielders out of the infield so he could create a gap that he could milk for singles.
Sweeping is fine, but particularly when opposition spinners are getting bounce, the sweeps cannot be indiscriminate. Getting your pad out of the line of the stumps. Coming down to the pitch of the ball. Trusting your hand-eye co-ordination while staying back in the crease. These are all options. There's more than one way to play, even on surfaces that spit on day one.
In the second Test, Sri Lanka need their senior batters to make much more of the conditions than they did last week. Karunaratne averages 52.20 at this venue. Mathews (who is due to make a comeback after a mild Covid illness) averages 47. Chandimal makes 41 a pop in Galle, and de Silva and Dickwella around 32 (very roughly).
Sri Lanka may reflect in between Tests, that although the sweep can important, the sweep is not what it's always about.

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