With good fortune on their side, Australia won their first Test series on the Indian sub-continent for 23 years, since Bill Lawry's team beat India 3-1 in 1969-70. It was a small step towards fulfilling their captain Allan Border's wish to redress the country's abysmal away record of the past 15 years - a mere ten wins against 27 defeats in 65 Tests, and only the Ashes series of 1989 settled in their favour. Australia won only one of the three Tests, the First, when the Sri Lankans lapsed into old, destructive ways at the very moment they were poised to come of age as a Test country. At one stage 76 without loss, in pursuit of 181 for their first victory against one of cricket's traditional powers, Sri Lanka lost by 16 runs. It must be the greatest heist since the Great Train Robbery, said Border. For Sri Lankan cricket, defeat after four days in the ascendancy was terribly dispiriting.
Sri Lanka were playing their first home Test since the horrific bomb blast at a bus station in Colombo in 1987, and the defeat came just after the deaths of nine of the country's military chiefs in an explosion in the war-torn north. Security for the tour was comprehensive but unobtrusive; with gentle persuasion from Border, and manager Cam Battersby, the Australians rid themselves of some of the paranoia which characterised their visits to the region in the 1980s. As a diplomatic exercise at a sensitive time in the evolution of the game in Sri Lanka, the tour was an overwhelming success. While Border was alarmed at the disproportionately high number of lbw decisions against Australia compared to Sri Lanka - 16 to four in the Test series - he conceded that the umpires had been disadvantaged by the five-year hiatus and did not believe any malice was intended. Fêted wherever he travelled on his 11th, and presumably final, tour of the Indian sub-continent in 14 years, Border further endeared himself to the people when he declared Sri Lanka to be a more accomplished Test match team than India.
Be that as it may, Sri Lanka's successes came in the limited-overs series which they won 2-1; their one defeat came under lights at Khettarama Stadium. With the notable exception of the final Test at the Tyronne Fernando Stadium at Moratuwa - the country's sixth and Greater Colombo's fifth Test match venue - crowds were much greater at the limited-overs games. In part this was due to the bold decision of the Sri Lankan board to show the Tests live on TV, to encourage sponsors and alert the community to the resumption of Test cricket. High prices and persistent rains were other factors in keeping the Test crowds low.
Without detracting from the wholehearted and, overall, encouraging efforts of Sri Lanka, Australia's performances were as uninspiring as they were unconvincing: they played catch-up cricket for the entire tour. With only 13 players, there was little room for manoeuvre. Among the bowlers, the omission of Merv Hughes raised a few eyebrows but was interpreted as a hint that he should attend to his fitness; his Victorian team-mate Tony Dodemaide was preferred.
The selectors had restructured the batting order, telling Border to bat at No. 6, elevating Tom Moody to open and compelling Dean Jones to accept greater responsibility at No. 4. Two months later, they were thinking again.
This was seen as Moody's big opportunity after five years on the fringe of the team, but he was exposed against the seaming ball. However, he was merely the most conspicuous of the failures. Only twice in six innings did Australia reach 110 without five wickets down and Greg Matthews and Ian Healy were effectively required to operate as specialist batsmen. Surprise at well-grassed and moist pitches that favoured seam bowlers could not entirely account for the failure of Moody, Mark Waugh, Mark Taylor and David Boon against the least glamorous attack in Test cricket.
Going into the series Champaka Ramanayake's best bowling return in ten Tests was two for 39, and his aggregate was 19, which he almost doubled to 36; Chandika Hathurusinghe had taken only one wicket in six Tests but here he took eight; the slow left-armer Anurasiri had played in just eight Tests in six years, but now sent down more overs than anyone else; and Duleep Liyanage and Muttiah Muralitharan, the only Tamil in the team, were little known outside their provincial districts when the Tests began. The Sri Lankan selectors were amply vindicated in choosing Liyanage (who was coached by Dennis Lillee in Madras immediately after the tour) and Muralitharan, a prodigious spinner of the ball. They were less successful in resolving the wicket-keeping problem.
AUSTRALIAN TOUR PARTY
A. R. Border ( Queensland) (captain), D. C. Boon (Tasmania), A. I. C. Dodemaide ( Victoria), I. A. Healy (Queensland), D. M. Jones (Victoria), C. J. McDermott (Queensland), D. R. Martyn (Western Australia), G. R. J. Matthews (New South Wales), T. M. Moody (Western Australia), M. A. Taylor (New South Wales), S. K. Warne (Victoria), M. E. Waugh (New South Wales), M. R. Whitney (New South Wales).
Manager: Dr C. Battersby. Coach: R. B. Simpson.
AUSTRALIAN TOUR RESULTS
Test matches - Played 3: Won 1, Drawn 2.First-class matches - Played 5: Won 1, Drawn 4. Wins - Sri Lanka. Draws - Sri Lanka (2), Board President's XI, Southern Districts XI. One-day Internationals - Played 3: Won 1, Lost 2