Sri Lankan cricket has been many things, but it has never been meek, submissive and yielding. Until now, that is.
One of the standout images of Sri Lanka on the cricket field is that of Arjuna Ranatunga, smoke billowing out of his ears, wagging his right forefinger menacingly in the direction of the umpires after Muttiah Muralitharan was repeatedly no-balled for ‘throwing’ during the Boxing Day Test of 1995. Sri Lanka would not be browbeaten – that was the resounding message from their mercurial captain. ‘Don’t mess with us.’
What Sri Lanka would give to have an Arjuna Ranatunga marshalling the troops now! To shake them out of their slumber, to re-educate them on their glorious past, to reinvigorate and energise them to at least play to their potential if not above it. To play the Sri Lankan way, with aggression and fierce passion and positivity but not recklessly, to not take a backward step, to meet fire with fire.
This Class of 2017 has showcased none of those qualities. They have been more careless than carefree, batting as if without a plan, bowling in hope more than conviction, putting catches down with astonishing regularity. It isn’t that they didn’t hurt or that they are happy to roll over and surrender. But they have inspired little confidence with the execution of their skills, and even less so with their body language. This isn’t yet a patient in terminal decline, but unless Sri Lanka unearth the magic wand that will instil the spark that has gone missing, it will be a long road back for Dinesh Chandimal and his boys.
Admittedly, as Chandimal has pointed out more than once, they were hard done by when it came to illness and injuries. The skipper himself missed the first game through pneumonia, Sri Lanka lost Asela Gunaratne on the opening morning of the series with a broken thumb, Nuwan Pradeep picked up a hamstring tear a day after taking career-best figures of 6 for 132 in Galle, and Rangana Herath, battling a burgeoning workload and advancing years, sat out the final Test with a stiff back. All four are influential members of the Test side, and for a team still in the throes of transition – as it has been for a while now – those were crippling blows. But it was in the inability of the others around them to raise their levels of intensity when the going got tough that Sri Lanka were a big letdown.
Only once before in 35 years have Sri Lanka lost all three Tests of a series at home. But in 2004 against Australia, Sri Lanka were massively competitive. They took the first-innings lead in each of those games, yet Australia found the wherewithal under Ricky Ponting to come back stronger and sweep the series. This time around, there was no fightback, no magical counter-attacking innings like Chandimal himself had unfurled against India in Galle two years back, no mesmeric, arresting spell of bowling like Herath’s in the fourth innings of that same Test. Sri Lanka were like lambs to the slaughter, tumbling over with such regularity that beyond a point, the Indians stopped celebrating the fall of wickets unless it came from an extraordinary piece of work in the field or a truly special delivery.
India only batted four times – one of them 240 for 3 declared – and yet had seven centuries to show. By contrast, in six completed innings, Sri Lanka had only two second-innings hundreds in Colombo, from Dimuth Karunaratne and Kusal Mendis. Karunaratne, who must quickly start scoring first-innings runs to shake off the tag of a second-dig specialist, topped their run-scoring charts with 285 runs, but apart from the talented but frustratingly rash Niroshan Dickwella (227) and Mendis (200), no other batsman even neared the 200-run mark. Karunaratne apart, no Sri Lankan averaged in excess of 40. Among the Indians, only Wriddhiman Saha, Mohammed Shami, Kuldeep Yadav and Umesh Yadav averaged under 40. R Ashwin’s 44 was the lowest among the nine who averaged more than 40.
As disturbing as the lack of runs was the lack of bite in the bowling. Pradeep (6) was the only bowler who took more than five wickets, Lakshan Sandkan (26.40) was the only one to average under 43. India only used six bowlers, of whom three –Shami (10), Ravindra Jadeja (13 in two Tests) and Ashwin (17) – returned at least ten wickets. Umesh’s team-high average of 35.83 was better than every Sri Lankan bowler bar Sandakan. Those are damaging numbers.
The first signs that Sri Lanka are going through the wars came at the start of the year, when Bangladesh held the home side to draws in all three formats. Then came the Champions Trophy debacle, followed by a first ever ODI series loss to Zimbabwe, at home. A record fourth-innings chase to clinch the one-off Test against Graeme Cremer’s men was commendable, but again showcased Sri Lanka’s vulnerability even on home patch, where they were invincible for so long and where even the best in the world had to dig deep time after time.
Sri Lanka cricket can ill-afford to cite the retirements of Muttiah Muralitharan, Mahela Jayawardene, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Muttiah Muralitharan for their plight. They have to understand that patience will start running thin even among their dedicated fans if they aren’t even seen to be trying to arrest the slide. As Chandimal pointed out the other day, this is the best talent pool Sri Lanka have at the moment, but the talent pool has to be made aware that ropes can only be this long, that accountability must come from within.
In a somewhat tenuous way, Sri Lanka find themselves in the same boat as India did in mid-2014, following their 1-3 loss in England in the Test series. “This is a team I believe needs someone like me to try and guide them, get them mentally tough,” Asanka Gurusinha, the cricket manager, told Wisden India. “I hope I can do what Ravi (Shastri) did a few years ago.” Gurusinha was referring to the appointment of the current head coach as the team director in August 2014, a move that has played a big part in where Indian cricket is today.
“My main goal is to try and get the team up and running again because you know when they lose, they are mentally down,” Gurusinha, a vital member of the 1996 World Cup-winning side, continued. “I work very closely to try and get their morale up. We have got a good bunch of boys, we have got a good bunch of coaching staff who are not big names and most probably very similar to India. The Indian coaching staff, if you take Ravi out, the rest are not big names but the great thing is they do a good job. The important thing is how they gel with the team and get them to perform. We are on a similar track as India most probably was a few years ago. We have got a great team, great support staff and now we are slowly trying to build it.”
The turnaround time isn’t much. Sri Lanka are scheduled to travel to the United Arab Emirates next month to take on Pakistan in a two-Test series followed by the limited-overs internationals, then arrive in India for a full tour of three Tests, and as many ODIs and T20Is. Unless they clean up their act and slip back into the lion mode that has characterised their cricket for so long, they will find it hard to sustain the interest, both within and without.