Sri Lanka’s tour to England represented what would be a close examination into a few silos of the current team. Chief amongst them was, of course, the batting, sans Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, the threadbare experience, the early May weather. It was all set up for a stern examination of Sri Lanka’s batting talent. But then through a quote by the Chief Selector Sanath Jayasuriya, the bowling attack suddenly came under sharp focus too. The claim was that Sri Lanka had one of the best, if not the best, attack in the world. Even the strongest of Sri Lankan supporters found themselves having a quiet chuckling at the implication.
On Sri Lanka’s last tour to England, the bowling line up was labelled a “glorified county attack” by Micheal Vaughan. It has also been called “working-class” and “attritional”. This perhaps, is closer to the truth. The point is that no one gave these bowlers much of a chance. Not back in 2014 and not much more in 2016.
Then Sri Lanka lost a talisman and leader in Dhammika Prasad. He’d emerged from the handful of hopeful bowlers over the last couple of years to gradually be at the pointy end of Sri Lanka’s attack. It was a massive loss and threw a spanner in the plans of Angelo Mathews Graham Ford.
Pradeep, Eranga, Chameera, Lakmal are not household names. But they were the rag tag team that was tasked with taking down England. Their bowling averages would be ones that Sri Lanka’s top order would kill for. Only Chameera has an average south of 30. Even Prasad still averages over 35, although his last two years have been much better. It does not make for pretty or pleasant reading.
But it was this same attack that reduced England to scores of 5 for 83 at Leeds, 5 for 216 at Durham, and 4 for 84 at Lords, in each of England’s first innings. If only they had held on to their chances, been lead better by Mathew’s at crucial junctures and not lost their way with their bowling plans, Sri Lanka could have bedded down these positions better in each Test. As it happens, they didn’t. And that is a reoccurring nightmare Sri Lanka must address, but one that is beyond the scope of this argument.
It is also true that, England, as strong as they have been had underlying question marks over their top order. Nick Compton’s career has arguably one innings of failure left in it. Alex Hales had to offer evidence of his Test mettle. James Vince had to provide substance over artistry. Sri Lanka exploited all these weaknesses. Perhaps not as majestically as James Anderson or Stuart Broad but they operated dutifully when the mood struck them.
Even a cursory glance at the tour stats for Sri Lanka is probably best avoided for ones with a frail heart. And it is possible that even alluding to Sri Lanka’s attack having done a decent job on this tour would be scoffed at in a similar manner to Jayasuriya’s claim before it began.
Yet, at Leeds, the bowlers worked on a line and length that was suited for those conditions and the pitch, albeit with a lack of consistency. There was swing, seam and a few play and misses were delicately teased out of the Englishmen
At Durham, on a much flatter batting track, they adjusted their lengths once again. And concentrated on dot balls and building pressure.At Lords they have used the slope to their advantage.
It hints at a unit that is thinking about what they would like to accomplish and at a few bowling plans that they have managed to execute.
At Lords on Day one Compton was teased with a fuller wider ball knowing he was looking to feel bat on ball. Vince was caught with a perfect good length ball. Root was tricked with a searing fuller quicker ball. And Sri Lanka continued to trouble Cook from around the wicket where he has fallen a couple of time already in this series.
Of course not every delivery with the new ball has made the batsmen play. Not every delivery has even found its line. And not every delivery was posited onto the pitch with the perfect wrist position. But it’s difficult to assess these players with the same yardstick as others.
Eranga and Pradeep both never played any real cricket until they were 20 years of age. Chameera is fast but young. And he learns quickly but he has a long way to go before he learns his length in Test cricket and how to set up batsmen with fuller balls. Lakmal has promise with his heigh and seam movement.
The trick is getting them all to available at the same time so that a varied attack can be picked as one unit. And as Graham Ford warned “there is not much depth” after this group of players. All of them are literally learning fast bowling on the job. They make mistakes. They repeat them. They have good sessions and then a few bad ones. They break through top orders but allow the tail to score runs.
It is this lack of consistency that has led to Sri Lanka letting England off the hook all tour. And what has plagued them for the last few years. And yea, the catching too.
While the attack has shown encouraging signs the bitter truth is that Sri Lanka have lost another Test series and are likely to lose it by a 3-0 margin. All Sri Lanka will be able to take away from this tour is isolated pockets of encouragement. But if Sri Lanka are to win Test matches away or at home, they need some semblance of a fast bowling attack. And this England tour has shown that there is perhaps one- half boiled and lacking as they may be – lurking under the surface.