Sri Lanka are a Test team in transition. Since the retirement of their batting and bowling superstars, they have not enjoyed the kind of success at home that they had in the first half of this millennium. Since the last time Australia went to Sri Lanka in 2016, they have won eight, lost ten and drawn one Test at home. They were beaten five times by England and three times by India. They also lost once each to Bangladesh and New Zealand. Their successes during this period have come against Zimbabwe, West Indies, Bangladesh and South Africa. Can Australia avenge their 3-0 series defeat in 2016? Here are some of the key aspects to look out for, ahead of the series which starts on June 29.
The toss and spin factors in Galle
Only once has a team won the toss and chosen to field in Galle. That was way back in 2001 when Sri Lanka beat India. On 20 other occasions, teams have chosen to bat first here. Teams that have chosen to bat first after winning the toss have lost
only three times. Two of those losses came last year when England beat Sri Lanka twice in the same series. When Australia and Sri Lanka meet, the toss becomes even more crucial. Australia have won the toss on eight occasions and have lost just one of those matches, in 1999. They have won five and drawn two.
When Australia lose
the toss, they have won just once and lost on three occasions. Among the 14 venues
in the world that have hosted at least five games since 2018, Galle is the most favorable for spinners as they strike once every 55 balls and have taken 13 five-wicket hauls. In fact, 78% of the wickets are taken by spinners and 77% of the overs have been bowled by spinners. Batters also average just 26.98 against spin. The average first-innings score in this period is 273. Both teams may be tempted to have as many spin options as possible with toss likely to play a big role especially for Australia.
Australia's Asian challenge
Australia have a good record in Sri Lanka. From 17 games, they have won seven and lost four. However, three of those four losses came the last time they were in Sri Lanka, in 2016. It was a series that Australia would want to forget and make amends for this time around. Australia's batting average in that series was 19.08 - their lowest
since the Ashes in 1978. The spinners from Sri Lanka took 54 of the 58 wickets while striking once every 41 balls. However, since that tour, Australia have done reasonably well in Asia, winning three Tests and losing four while managing four draws. They won the series against Pakistan, drew against Bangladesh and lost against India. In these matches, Australia averaged 330 in the first innings and batted more than 100 overs in six of the 11 occasions.
Australian batters against left-arm spin
One area of focus for Australia is their ability to play left-arm orthodox spin in the subcontinent. Since 2016, no team has a worse
record than Australia against this type of bowling. Australia average just 21.36 against left-arm orthodox spinners . Sri Lanka are likely to go with two if not three such bowlers. Since 2016, Sri Lankan left-arm orthodox bowlers average 24.86 at home. Among the Australian batters, David Warner has a good record, scoring 230 runs from 298 balls at an average of 46. However Steven Smith has struggled against this type of bowling, scoring 410 runs from 2016 deliveries with 12 dismissals. The in-form Usman Khawaja has also struggled, scoring 111 runs from 195 balls at an average of 27.75. How the batters tackle Lasith Embuldeniya and Pravin Jayawickrama could hold the key to Australia's fortunes.
Dimuth Karunaratne is probably the best opener in the world in the last few years, averaging 47.20 since Jan 2018. However, he has a point to prove against Australia. He had a horrid series when Australia came to the islands in 2016, scoring just 41 runs from six innings. Overall, he is averaging just 17.18 from 16 innings. Since that series against Australia in 2016, Karunaratne averages 54.41 and has scored nine centuries and 15 fifties in just 56 innings. In Galle, where a lot of batters have struggled, Karunaratne has scored 848 runs from 14 innings, scoring three fifties and three centuries. Since January 2021, no opener has scored
more runs or centuries than Karunaratne.
At the other end of the spectrum is Warner, who has not scored an international century since January 15, 2020. Barring one series against Bangladesh, his record in Asia is below par. Warner averaged 27.16 the last time Australia toured Sri Lanka and averages 33.73 in 23 innings in Asia since the start of that tour. He has two hundreds in Asia in this period - both against Bangladesh - but only four other 50-plus scores. Interestingly, Warner's record against spin in Asia since 2016 is good: he averages 39.71 against them. However, he averages just 24.44 against pace.
Sri Lanka is the only team against which Warner is yet to score a century. If he is able to set that record straight this time around, it will hugely benefit both batter and team.