ITS A "MAKE OR BREAK" SERIES
FOR SRI LANKA.
BY: AJITH C. S. PERERA
One-day cricket has come to stay with us, but the real talent can be gauged in only five-day Test Match Cricket. It is the yardstick where you can truly assess and judge the capabilities and the potential of a cricketer. That is what we will now talk and see for the next one month like at least.
To Perform under Pressure.
As this tour unfolds we may again realise the urgent need for players with real match winning potential who could stand-up any time and take the initiative back when things are going against their way. Sooner they emerge, better it will be for the game. Modern day cricketer will find new challenges and be challenged by new thinking. Winning the Key-Sessions to prosper in the vital periods of a Test Match, is of critical importance for a happy end-result. This certainly requires playing good cricket under Extreme Pressure, which is a skill that takes time and requires good guidance to develop. Yes that is why I have always stressed the need to develop and soon produce "Thinking Cricketers". Then only we will have world-class players, who would on their own take right action to get right results at the right time at the centre, with their right thinking. Both teams lack such talent.
ITS A VERY CRUCIAL TOUR!
Three match Test-Series comes at a crucial time for Sri Lankan Cricket after a rain-hit one-day series. From its long known name of Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka (BCCSL) it has just become SRI LANKAN CRICKET (SLC). It is now not only an elected body but also has a broad based governing commercial arm of Sri Lanka Cricket Incorporated (SLCI) functioning as a BOI venture. Its new leader Mr Thilanga Sumathipala and his team are batting their way out of a very sticky wicket. Plans have been spelt out for the immediate restructure and developments of the overall game over a period of five years. No sponsor would venture to back a losing horse and this instance the Sri Lankan Cricket. Hence we all know that if the game becomes a losing habit, then marketing it could be difficult and the SLC would be denied of the finances it needs to resuscitate the game and administration.
Perfect test for England.
Although based on The ICC Test Championship table where at present England are at no (3) and Sri Lanka at No (7), in my opinion is never a good yardstick to gauge anything related to a Test-Match-Series about to start any where. Man-for-man England are on a par. Both sides have experienced players in all departments and a balanced outfit with few talented youngsters filling the balance vacancies. In fact this move of trying out youngsters having the potential to big league cricket is paying dividends as England are at present on a winning streak after remarkable improvements in the last six months, with a 2 2 series in South Africa followed by a 2-0 win in Bangladesh, where the tactics had been attacking field placements with plenty of short pitch bowling by their five pacies, Anderson, Harmison (who has to sadly return home with injury), Clarke, Hoggard and Flintoff. Remember, South Africans set a victory target of over 400 runs in the 4th innings on a wearing pitch, but England made the chase and on won admirably. But this 3-match test series playing against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka will be the perfect test for England to see how far ahead they have really progressed. But the contest they will face here will be much much harder than they experienced in Bangladesh.
After they were comprehensively beaten in the First Test in Galle in 2001, it was amelioration as England came back to win the next two. They grew stronger as the series progressed and outplayed Sri Lanka in the crucial moments, proving that they are a rejuvenated side, who possess a deal of self belief and have impressive skill levels. England, helped by an immensely experienced top order, played their best cricket in the tight pressure situations and this in my opinion made all that difference as they then won vital sessions of play. Although happy memories is a thing of past it will give our visitors confidence, in that they have done it before.
I continue to think that England are a real 'danger side' if they can get it together consistently. They have the ammunition to fire all cylinders. Perhaps the change we now see in the leadership, could pave the way for that. If the England line-up has got an Achilles heel, then it's in the all-rounder slot. Rikki Clarke who bowls useful medium pacer more straight and adds dependability to the middle order in batting with a lot of confidence, is seen as the biggest plus on tour as their second all-rounder. England will also need one or two who could hold up an end and play big shots when they matter even in Test Cricket. Fighter Paul Collingwood will get the nod over the others. Mark Butcher has struck form straight away with a 219-ball unbeaten 151 in Colombo and Graham Thorpe and Andrew Flintoff are also amongst the runs at the CCC Grounds, as I write this article.
But all Sri Lankan eyes will get focused on their new pace quadruple, led by the sensational recent find James Anderson and includes James Kirtley, Richard Johnson and Matthew Hoggard. Certainly it will be an acid test for these young men bowling to a 'Master Blaster' like Sanath Jayasuriya, where one cannot leave any margin for error. Asgiriya in Kandy, more than Galle is where they can expect more pace and bounce and perhaps also some movement off the air.
The area England worry is their Spin-department. Unlike the by-gone eras of Illingworth, Underwood, Titmus, Emburry and others, lack of good quality spin bowlers is a real area for concern by England. They do not have many wrist spinners playing in county cricket and thats the type of bowling that will take wickets in this part of the world. Ashley Giles will have the relatively untried off spinner Gareth Batty. After careful thought English selectors have drafted in Robert Croft as the third spinner. Giles, Englands greatest concern after reconstruction of his action had an impressive 4 / 56 and the novice Batty 3 / 59 in the 3-day warm up game. Croft the late addition to the side to bolster this aspect had just 1 for 11.
Man-for-Man, Sri Lanka on a Par.
Sri Lanka have not had the sweet taste of test match success for the past 16 long months. After the tour to West Indies ended last June, they have enjoyed a well deserved long break. The squad is physically fit and mentally ready and also skilfully prepared to get going. The players can only go with what we have got here and the Premier Trophy Tournament is the best they could get and with that they had the best available opportunity. From the news coming, I think their attitudes, the way they now approach their cricket and their practices are now much more professional. They must play attacking cricket with a will to win believing in the potential they have for that. This shall be the immediate steeping stone to bigger deeds.
Sri Lanka has gone through three two-test series recording three losses and three draws against South Africa, New Zealand and West Indies. As you know it is the bowlers who ultimately win test-matches. Their two key bowlers Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas have not been able to reap the same rewards as in the past, with strike rates as high as over 70 and 76 balls per wicket respectively. With availability of modern technology, batsmen world over study their opposite sides strike bowlers and adopt effective methods to counter their bowling weaponry. But that does not mean these batsmen are going to play them well always thereafter. They have to access what sort of batting form they are in. Bowlers too are not going to remain inept. More variation and adoption of new strategies are eternally on their triumph cards.
The English Cricketers inability to play spin well, is well known and thus we may even see a third slower bowler in the playing XI to add variety and support Muralitharan and Jayasuriya. It could be the 'A' team Captain Tilan Samaraweera or the 'leggy' Upul Chandana or perhaps even Kumara Dharmasena, all of whom having the potential to strengthen the middle order batting. However, Muttiah Muralitharan, an off-Spinner of outstanding ability and enough experience at the highest grade of cricket, is said to have a big impact in this series. Its true he found the English conditions in the late Spring in England unsympathetic to his trade. But here, we now talk of a series in Sri Lanka!
No series against Sri Lanka can be contemplated without due reference to Muttiah Muralithran who has that magical gift of bewitching batsmen with the ball and has mesmerised even the worlds best on his day. He is just 29 wickets away from West Indian Courtney Walshs world record of 519 wickets. When asked by the writer what he expectations he has against the English, his sincere reply was, England is a good side. We have to play really hard to win. I cannot predict anything but Im determined to do my best to win matches and help my country. What is important here is that the other frontline bowlers must support Murali in applying pressure with disciplined bowling consistently and also taking wickets at key moments of time. In fact it is interesting to note that it was Sanath Jayasuriya (16 for 236) and Chaminda Vaas (16 for 244) who were the leading bowlers in the 3-match Test Series when England toured here last in 2001. Murali had 14 wickets but was hit for 421 runs.
Veteran Chaminda Vaas is there to give the new ball pace and variety. He has also mastered reverse swing of the old ball which will be an added bonus. It looks 24-year old right-arm medium-fast bowler Dinusha Fernado is likely to make his Test-Debut at Galle and form Chaminda Vaass new ball partner also in Test Match Cricket. His movement off the seam and his ability for getting early break-throughs with accuracy, may get the nod at Galle over the tall and lanky Dilhara Fernando relying more on raw pace. Dilhara is probably the fastest we have in the international arena, more a first-change bowler, can easily be a match winner on his day. In fact Galle track may not suit his style of bowling.
Sri Lanka is led by Hashan Thillekeratne, Mr. Reliable for holding the middle order together who has a very impressive batting record of 11 hundreds and 17 fifties from 77 test matches! In the one and only opportunity he was given against England on home soil, that was in 1993 solitary Test Match, Hashan first scored an unbeaten 93 (281 minutes, 9 x 4s) and then made another unbeaten 36 (81 minutes, 6 x 4s) in the second innings.
For batting Sri Lanka have the likes of dependable Maravn Atapattu, Kumar Sangakkara and captain Hashan Tillekeratne, along with Mahela Jayawardena, and the explosive Sanath Jayasuriya. A test match or an ODI makes no difference to Sanath, as it is his natural game with a bludgeoning bat. The bowling can be attacking or defensive, yet either way, if the ball is there to be hit, you can be certain that Jayasuriya will go for it with an array of strokes leaving bowlers shell-shocked. The middle order is certainly brittle with Mahela Jayawardena having a lean run, but he has the ability and class to get out of that rut and perform. Unless the selectors wisely go for a specialist Wicket-keeper, which means Romesh Kaluwitharana who will then fill the middle-order slot, a tussle for this place is seen between the in-form two Thilan Samaraweera and Tillakaratne Dilshan (and Kumara Dharmasena). Tall and long reaching Michael Vandort the baby of the side at 23 years will be asked to wait to play his 3rd Test Match.
Sri Lankan batsmen are naturally positive and it would be counterproductive to force them to play unnaturally. When you are playing a side like England though, who played slow methodical cricket throughout the previous series here, you need to temper your aggression a little and take more calculated risks. It is difficult for players to find the balance, but too frequently in the last home series, Sri Lankan batsmen sold their wickets too cheaply. In fact this was the view of the then coach Davenall Whatmore after the last Test Series here was lost by Sri Lanka.
In the end what matters most.
Galle Stadium pitch at times tends to be too slow in pace. Batsmen may survive on it, but free-scoring will be hard and will be forced to graft hard for their runs. It will also then be a good test of their mental toughness and concentration. With his control of shot selections and abundance of patience, this then shall be the happy grounds for Marvan Atapattu. (Remember his 10 hour Double century in 2001?)
Here we talk and analyse many things prior to the series unfold. But, at the end what really matters is performance at the center on those given five consecutive days. Withstanding mental challenges become paramount and reputations do not matter. In to-days highly competitive game, there is only a very fine line between success and failure and this means the team that leaves less margin (or rather no margin) for error, (like the rash strokes) wins! Let us hope that players from both sides take their form into the middle. Given good pitches (so that everybody in the game gets an opportunity if they play well enough to do well) and blessed with better weather that is promised in December, country too once again buzzing with excitement, we are in for a good treat of Test-Match-Cricket over a period of 21 days.