It is often said that a Test pitch should not be judged until Sri Lanka have had the chance to collapse on it. But unless the surface changes substantially over the next day, this pitch
seems collapse-proof even for this Sri Lanka, who unveil a new monument to batting incompetence once every Test (in their last 12 innings, they have been all out for less than 200 five times).
Early on day one, the ball at its hardest, the pitch at its freshest (and generally springiest), wicketkeeper Niroshan Dickwella was collecting the ball at knee height and lower. Batters played and missed occasionally, but not often, with little movement on offer either off the deck or in the air. Even if there had been edges, there was a decent chance they would have bounced before a catch could be claimed behind the wicket. By mid-morning, the batters were confidently pulling and hooking Lahiru Kumara's 140kph-plus bouncers in front of square.
All this on the grassiest Test-match pitch seen in Sri Lanka in at least five years. In South Africa, surfaces of this hue are called green mambas - the ball, leaping, spitting, biting off a length. On day one, this pitch was so lame it was more like a green earthworm, the kind that reproduces asexually and lives its life entirely in the dark, presumably in its parents' basement.
So how have Sri Lanka wound up with what appears, for now, to be a dud of a surface? Aren't the island's pitches supposed to be devious on day one, treacherous on day three, unplayable on day four? (No draw has been played out on the island since 2014.) And, uhhh, don't Sri Lankan pitches turn, usually? Turn so much that seamers are frequently made redundant?
After play on day one, Sri Lanka's batting coach Grant Flower
said the surface did not offer as much as Sri Lanka's seamers had hoped for. This much was already clear. But he also said Sri Lanka broke tradition and went for a greener pitch in order to "give our seamers a chance for a change". Essentially, Sri Lanka felt their best chance for victory lay with their quicks, all of whom average over 35. Another way to put this; Sri Lanka's spin stocks are so depleted for this series, that the seam attack suddenly emerged as their primary weapon. Their only viable weapon?
It's possible we might have seen a drier surface if left-arm spinner Lasith Embuldeniya
had been fit for this series. Yes, he's got only 11 Tests on his ledger, and sure, that average in the high 30s doesn't suggest he's a hook you can hang your attack on. But still, in his last series at home, Embuldeniya claimed 15 wickets in two Tests. Increasingly, Sri Lanka appear as though they trust him to develop a certain match-winningness. But then, the moment he is injured, boom! That's enough of this dusty stuff. Roll out the green carpet please. What does this say for the remainder of Sri Lanka's spin stocks? Can't be a lot, right? Their specialist spinner in this match is Wanindu Hasaranga
, and he is far from becoming a reliably wicket-threatening legspinner. Dhananjaya de Silva
is in there as support, but is rocking modest part-timer numbers on the Test front.
Sri Lanka, it would appear, no longer have the kind of world-class spin-bowling weaponry that kept even Herath largely out of the national side for almost ten years. So dire has it all become, that in this Test, they have banked on seam and wound up with a pitch they didn't want
Elsewhere in the squad, Sri Lanka have one other frontline spin option: 22-year-old left-arm spinner Praveen Jayawickrama
, who has played all of ten first-class games. He was picked because another uncapped slow left-armer, Duvindu Tillakaratne
, was injured, and another one - Prabath Jayasuriya
- failed a fitness test. In an 18-member squad for a Test series at home, these are the spin options Sri Lanka have strung together - a list so bleak, it would have been almost unthinkable even five years ago. This is the nation of Muttiah Muralitharan
and Rangana Herath
; of flight, dip, spin and catchers milling around batters like vultures around a carcass they are about to devour. If there is one area in which Sri Lanka ought to have a reliable production line, what else than this?
If this surface turns out to be as docile as it threatened to be on day one, add it to list of crimes Sri Lanka's domestic system is responsible for. Although slow bowlers dominate first-class cricket, their pile of wickets come against frequently hapless batters, on pitches that rage from ball one. Against better batters, whom they must bowl longer spells at, and defeat with guile and subtlety rather than merely with the help of the surface, Sri Lanka spinners tend to struggle.
Coach Mickey Arthur spoke about this in an interview
this week: "Some [domestic] performances get amplified a little bit, so for example, on turning wickets, a guy might get a batch of five-fors, but that doesn't necessarily mean he has the weapons to walk in and be a good international player. Yes, he's got the ability, but does he have what it takes to transition? I'm talking about skill level, about fitness level, and the ability to take the pressure and the scrutiny that comes with international cricket."
In the past few years, Sri Lanka have rifled through spin options: Tharindu Kaushal
went into decline when his doosra was banned, Malinda Pushpakumara
seemed only a fraction as effective in internationals as he does in domestics, Lakshan Sandakan
hasn't quite cracked Tests despite having been around for five years, and Dilruwan Perera
has entered what may be a terminal decline. Sri Lanka, it would appear, no longer have the kind of world-class spin-bowling weaponry that kept even Herath largely out of the national side for almost ten years. So dire has it all become, that in this Test, they have banked on seam and wound up with a pitch they didn't want.