Andrew Fidel Fernando in ESPNcricinfo, Tuesday/Wednesday
On paper it’s been six years since the Australia men’s side were last in Sri Lanka for a Test tour, but somehow that 2016 tour seems a lifetime ago. Graham Ford was Sri Lanka’s coach then; Angelo Mathews still the captain. For Australia, it was pre-Sandpapergate. Adam Voges was a part of the middle order.
If you’re a Sri Lanka fan, there was magic in the air. That was not a Sri Lanka side that should have won. Even their greatest teams have struggled against Australia and when they were bowled out for 117 in Pallekele on the first day of the tour, there was disappointment, but no major surprise. Sri Lanka seemed dead in a series that had only just begun.
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Then, madness. Kusal Mendis played the innings of his life at 21, rubbing the paddles together with a wild glint in his eye before defibrillating Sri Lanka’s chances with that manic 176 (next-highest score in the match: 55). Dhananjaya de Silva, in his maiden series, hitting a run-down-and-pound-the-spinner-into-the-sightscreen six to make his first Test runs, before going on to top the run charts across the three Tests, having rescued Sri Lanka from a scoreline of 26 for 5 on the first morning at the SSC along the way.
There were contributions from Mathews, a slow-burn hundred from Dinesh Chandimal, the triumphant return of Shaun Marsh in the third Test, and Mitchell Starc breathing as much fire as a quick has ever done on the island, blasting out 24 wickets at 15.16, operating at a withering pace throughout.
And then of course uncle Rangana Herath, making uncle Rangana Herath mischief. On this tour, it was his straighter ball, that saw him gobble Australia’s batters up wholesale. And remember that one Test in which he’d been hit in the box, delivered one average spell where his balls did not have their usual shape, but then came back later to mangle the opposition? What a man.
Yes, this is an overlong recap. But screw it. It was a comical, unprecedented, certifiably insane Test series. One which added a fresh flavour to the ODI-dominated lore between these two sides.
Because we’re now a lifetime removed from that series, though, it seems a good point to take stock of where the current sides are in relation to that tour. Australia, for one, do not seem to have anywhere near the same vulnerabilities against spin in Asia.
Usman Khawaja made 55 runs across four innings in that series. In Galle, he was dismissed by Dilruwan Perera’s straighter ball twice in the same day. In Pakistan just a few months back, however, the man amassed a series-topping 496 runs, hitting 97, 160, 44*, 91, and 104*. It’s only been six years since 2016. But things have changed.
Among Australia’s transformative factors have been Pat Cummins‘ sharp rise, plus Nathan Lyon‘s continued development. The pitches in Galle will likely be substantially more bowler-friendly than those in Pakistan, but if we are to establish a shorthand for predicting Australia’s fortunes in Sri Lanka, a recent away series in Pakistan is as apt a measure as you could manage. Before that 2016 Sri Lanka series, for example, Australia had lost 2-0 to Pakistan in the UAE, in late 2014. Against that Pakistan, Lyon had taken only three wickets, at an average of 140, across the two Tests.
In the series in March, however, he and Cummins had topped the wicket-takers’ list with 12 apiece. Cummins had been especially spectacular in a batting-dominated series, taking his wickets at an average of 22.50. There is reverse-swing to be had in Galle, particularly from day three onwards, once the sea breeze has dried out the square. Cummins and Starc are as good as any bowlers in the world at finding reverse.
Sri Lanka minus Herath are a less daunting attack too. In Bangladesh, their spinners went missing almost entirely, claiming just one wicket between them in Dhaka – their quicks winning the Test for them. Between Lasith Embuldeniya (16 Tests), Praveen Jayawickrama (five Tests), and Ramesh Mendis (six Tests), no one has developed the guile with which Herath and Perera dominated in 2016. Embuldeniya, for example, has not yet successfully deployed that dangerous straighter ball, instead getting most of his wickets by beating, or taking the right-hander’s outside edge.
Sri Lanka’s batting, perhaps, is in some sort of decent shape. Dimuth Karunaratne, who skidded through that 2016 series with scores of 5, 0, 0, 7, 7 and 22, is now not only captain, he’s also been their most consistent batter of the past four years. Mathews and Chandimal made runs in a recent series in Bangladesh; Kusal Mendis has been in form through the ODIs; Pathum Nissanka and de Silva have made recent runs too.
Where the 2016 series was memorable for its wild narratives, this one, with luck, will have a more competitive flavour. Australia are no Asian pushovers anymore. Sri Lanka are still trying to find themselves, particularly with a relatively fresh head coach in Chris Silverwood. It might be gripping cricket, rather than the funny kind.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf
Thuppahi's Blog · This web site presents the interventions of MICHAEL ROBERTS in the public realm with reference to Sri Lankan political affairs. It will embrace the politics of cricket as well. ROBERTS was educated at St. Aloysius College in Galle and the universities of Peradeniya and Oxford. He taught History at Peradeniya University and Anthropology at Adelaide university. He is now retired and lives in Adelaide.