My piece for the Roar on the first test.

Where do you go when you’ve lost a Test match within three days (two, if you count actual match-play time)? When you’ve only lasted 71 overs across two innings? When the team total doesn’t even reach the top score of the opposition batsmen, not once but twice? What school of thought do you adhere to, as you attempt to make sense of what has transpired?

Is it the “forget it ever happened and move on” option? Maybe it’s the “we will look at where things went wrong” reassessment approach. Or perhaps the “taking the positives” spin. Angelo Mathews feels it was “embarrassing” more than anything else. It was. On the surface, the horrific loss at Headingley is an open and shut case of Sri Lanka’s inaptitude. However, a close look may reveal a more nuanced picture.

The Trouble With Headingley

First, the conditions; the early May weather has always been a time honoured nemesis of sub-continental teams. Headingley is not exactly a holiday destination if you are Sri Lankan. 2014 was surprisingly mild as Leeds goes, which clearly aided Sri Lanka’s triumph. 2015 was a colder affair, albeit with a much drier pitch when New Zealand toppled England. 2016, however, was Headingley on an acid trip.

The groundsman cooked up a lively green concoction that the Sri Lankan batsmen could not swallow in two attempts. The gods of swing played a “best of” album of conditions to compound matters further. Graham Ford indicated prior to the tour that Sri Lanka was preparing for conditions by practising on pitches that are similar to England’s. The team held a camp in Kandy in a bid to acclimatise. If there is a single groundsman in Sri Lanka who could have conjured up conditions even remotely close to Headingley, his credentials would have had to come from Hogwarts. Sri Lanka had waded in a baby pool, but in England, they had to face a rough storm instead.

A Relentless Assault

James Anderson celebrates the wicket of Kaushal Silva. Image credit: Getty Images
James Anderson celebrates the wicket of Kaushal Silva. Image credit: Getty Images

Then there were James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Sri Lanka’s only hope against Anderson was that his remarkably poor figures at Headingley would live up its reputation once again. However, with conditions and the pitch being what they were, it would have been a cricketing anomaly if he’d averaged forty again. Anderson was bowling art. At times, his outswingers were so perfect and beautiful that seeing them over and over again had a hypnotic effect ‒ an effect that seemed to scramble the minds of the Sri Lankan batsmen. As a viewer, watching deliveries leave his hand, aimed in towards the right-handers, then slowly kiss the air to nudge away from the batsman millimetre by millimetre, pitch and then move away further, made one feel like time had slowed down. Though, for Sri Lanka’s batsmen, there was never enough time. All they saw was Anderson coming at them over and over again. It was a relentless assault.

It seems remarkable that Broad, the number one ranked Test bowler in the world, was playing a supporting role here. Broad is a bowler who is now at the zenith of his powers. Together with Anderson they formed a lethal pairing that Sri Lanka had not experienced for quite some time. Sri Lanka’s batting destruction against these two was by no means an isolated incident. Better batting sides with more talent and richer experience have come up against these two bowlers and found themselves embarrassed in England. Australia in 2015 at Trent Bridge, India in 2014 at the Oval and Old Trafford point to instances that Sri Lanka can compare their own debacle to.

Apart from the preparations back home, Sri Lanka’s two tour games also did not set them up in any way for the trial at Headingley. Up against two Division Two county teams, who fielded second-string attacks, did not come close to what they were about to be exposed to.

Where We Failed

Highlighting these facts is not an exercise at providing excuses for the loss. It is to frame it in a more balanced standing than dismissing Sri Lanka as a team with no hope. There were many aspects of this game that Sri Lanka did have control over that they failed to master.

When they batted, their judgement was indecisive on what to leave. The conditions and the high-class bowling that came at them left no margins for error. Sri Lanka’s batsmen, unfortunately, tried to dance on this thin line and paid the price. Bowling of this quality demands the tightest of techniques. Sri Lanka’s was feebly loose. When they were bowled out for 91 in the first innings and asked to follow on, they had an immediate opportunity to redeem themselves. Yet, the same mistakes were made time and again. That was a criminal offence and one that Sri Lanka should not have allowed themselves to make. At least, not quite that easily. Mahela Jayawardene said that Sri Lanka did not appear to have a game plan to counter the moving ball. On the evidence of the two innings at Headingley, you could not find fault with that assessment.

Sri Lanka’s problems, however, started when they bowled. Shaminda Eranga, Nuwan Pradeep, and Dushmantha Chameera had the same ball, the same pitch and similar conditions to what England enjoyed. Yet, they failed to fully capitalise on it. They began well when England were reduced to 83 for 5. But there were plenty of deliveries that England did not need to play. The constant danger and threat that Anderson and Broad created with their bowling was not something that the Sri Lankans could emulate.

Bairstow and Hales
Bairstow, together with Hales, put on a match-defining partnership. Image courtesy: skysports.com

Having had the hosts in such a difficult position, Sri Lanka let it slip. They opted for what appeared to be a team meeting tactic on bowling short to Jonny Bairstow as opposed to staying with keeping the ball up; the tactic that was required and more importantly working for them at the time.. This allowed Alex Hales and Bairstow to put on what in the end proved to be the match-defining partnership.

Angelo Mathews’ defensive streak in his captaincy also reared its ugly head on day two. At stumps on day one, England were 171 for 5, which meant that Sri Lanka were still very much in the game. By allowing Bairstow and Hales to settle down with men on the boundary, Mathews and Sri Lanka lost the opportunity to keep England to a modest total. Later, Bairstow was dropped by Pradeep on 70. There were other chances put down as well, although not as costly.

These were not problems England was inflicting on Sri Lanka. This was self-destruction. If Sri Lanka is serious about winning Test matches, it is these moments that they can ill afford to squander. For a team that now lacks any super stars, perhaps apart from Mathews and Rangana Herath, teamwork, strategy and the basics are not pillars they can play loose and fast with.

Lessons Sri Lanka Should Learn From This Defeat

In the end, it was four players who took the game away from Sri Lanka. And that is what happens with good sides where performances from individuals can turn a contest. This should give Sri Lanka some encouragement as they head to Durham. Though there exists an obvious mismatch in class between the sides, had it not been for a few self-inflicted wounds, the game may have headed down a different path when they bowled.

Where batting is concerned, Sri Lanka certainly needs to be tighter with technique, and more assured in their judgement. The basic facets of their game must always be on point. Lack of discipline in those areas will always be punished by strong opposition.

This tour more than any other is meant to be a learning curve for this young side. And that is the ultimate lesson they must take away from Headingley. Sri Lanka knew that this tour would test every inch of their resolve. They knew England would come at them hard. At Headingley, they faced the full wrath of that reality. Now they must respond. There is a still a series to be saved. They cannot afford to repeat the same mistakes. They must absorb what happened, learn, adapt, and face their demons head on.

sri lanka in england 2016

Sri Lanka crafted a few plans on how to tackle what would be a massively trying challenge for them in England. The piece of the puzzle that would be the most difficult for them to fit would always be the lopsided batting one. The one that must fit on the British Isle for there to be any hope of repeating, however unlikely, the teams success in 2014.

To try and alleviate some of the struggles the selectors offered continuity in the openers by placing extended faith in Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva. The expectation was that with the experience of their partnership so far and their performance in England back in 2014, they would once again form a buffer for the newly bred middle order.

26 balls into the Sri Lankan innings, both were back in the pavilion.

When Kumar Sangakkara announced his retirement, it felt like the entire nation went into meltdown. Who would replace him? Who could replace him? The answer for Graham Ford and Sri Lanka lay hidden somewhere between Dinesh Chandimal, Lahiru Thirimanne and lately Kusal Mendis. When Mendis showed promise in the two tour matches there was a quiet sense of optimism about how he could announce himself on the scene. This is a plan that they could see panning out; the young gun who comes good on his first tour.

One Stuart Broad special and nine balls without a run was all Mendis had in him.

After the ICC’s cluster mess up of Kusal Perera’s career, Sri Lanka had to rethink how they would patch their lower order. Milinda Siriwardana had the opportunity to prove that he was worthy but then lost his form when it mattered the most. Dasun Shanaka was floated as a possibility. Based on his T20 exploits to be sure but a gamble worth  taking. A century against Leicester added meat to the theory and helped ease a few of those worries. Mahela Jayawardene gave him his first test cap on a cold Headingley morning.

A first ball duck.

There can’t be too many players who have had the support of his captain, ex-players, ex-selectors and current selectors in the face of sustained failures than Lahiru Thirimanne. Still, Sri Lanka picked him for this tour. They watched him fail in the two tour matches and picked him for the first test too. All because the plan was if we gave him enough chances and massaged his confidence he would prove it was not misplaced faith.

He lobbed a ball to mid on after telling Mathews to not review his dismissal.

Before the start of the England tour, Graham Ford, Sri Lanka’s coach said that what people admired about the Sri Lankan cricketers of the past was how mentally tough they were.

“Maybe there are a few question marks about that now, and it’s time for us to start putting that right”.

Here he was speaking about the new batch of Sri Lankan batting hopefuls. He knew it would be an acid test of where his young batting talent truly were in the cauldron that is test cricket.

He only needed to wait for 36.4 over’s to find out.

The series is only two days old and every one of Sri Lanka’s brittle plans came undone in the matter of a few hours. The search for mental toughness has had to ask for another extension on its deadline. Technical flaws have been exposed. There is a real threat of this test ending inside three days.

Sri Lanka will now need to rethink. Regroup. And replan.

 

 

 

sri lanka in england 2016

Sri Lanka

Day two began with Sri Lanka still in the hunt for a position in this game. It ended with them conceding all the ground they had gained with the ball.

The day was littered with mistakes that when added up together have left them with the potential of losing the test inside three days. Angelo Mathews receded to his default position of putting men on the fence for a set batsman. Jonny Bairstow enjoyed the most of this by steadily accumulating to his third hundred at Headingley in as many matches. Mathews defensive tactics have become so commonplace that it’s no longer even a surprise when he pulls them out. But it remains as infuriating as ever.

Shaminda Eranga and Nuwan Pradeep once again bowled well together. And had it not been for two dropped catches Sri Lanka could have kept England for a much smaller total.

Really, though, the highlight of the day was Sri Lanka’s batting and the dream sequence that was Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad’s bowling.

There were good balls, poor shots, and bizarre thinking that in the end resulted in a meek surrender by Sri Lanka. It was all too familiar, so much so that, Sri Lanka have now become a parody of themselves.

The openers, on who so much depends on this tour, had come and gone before you could blink.

Kusal Mendis found out just how good the bowling is at test level.

Dinesh Chandimal played what can best be described now as a typical Chandimal innings. Nervy, unsure prodding at top class bowling that only knows one winner.

Angelo Mathews briefly held it all together and with Lahiru Thirimanne looked to repeat what Bairstow and Alex Hales had done for England. Then in an absolutely shocking moment, Mathews refused to review his LBW decision when so much hung in the balance. It was Game of Thrones Red Wedding shocking. It was the creepy girl coming out of the TV in The Grudge shocking.

Thirimanne to his credit, under pressure, in the match situation and personally, played quite well. But in a repeat of pretty much every one of his dismissals in the last twelve months, he played a strange half-hearted lob to mid on. But perhaps his most significant contribution was discouraging Mathews to review his dismissal

Dasun Shanaka was not to have a similar debut with bat as with ball as he departed to a searingly wonderful outswinger off his first ball.

91 all out in 209 balls. It was a horror show.

England

In typical Leeds conditions, Anderson set about putting his oddly poor return at Headingley where he averaged forty before this game. This time, though, Headingley embraced Anderson as it put together it’s most favourable potluck of conditions to aid Jimmy on his way to a five-for. It was Anderson at his devastating best as he hooped the ball around the Sri Lankan top order to leave his opponents in disarray. You know what is coming with Anderson. Yet, batsmen all over the world continue to fall to his simple trap over and over again. He must now surely be considered an all time great in the bowling ranks.  At a certain point, it seemed like a pig shooting competition between Broad and Anderson on who can get to five wickets first. Broad here provided ample proof of why he is the number one ranked test bowler in the world. In retrospect, Sri Lanka didn’t seem to stand a chance.

Match Situation

Needless to say England hold all the aces at the moment.

Play of the day

Jonny Bairstow’s third hundred in succession at Headingley.

Mahela Jayawardene Wisdom of the Day

Jayawardene is in the Sky commentary team for this tour. So we will keep our ears peeled for his wisdom.

“Murali would tell Mal Loye that he was a better batsman than him in his time at Lancashire”

Angelo Mathew’s moment of the day

Not going for that review. Really? Two reviews in the bag, the best batsman in the side, the team slowly drowning; there are no words.

sri lanka in england 2016

 

Sri Lanka

After all the talk had in the lead up faded away, Angelo Mathews won the toss and elected to field. It was time for the “top best attack” in the world to prove their billing. For most parts in the first hour, Sri Lanka did enough to keep England in check. Shaminda Eranga and Nuwan Pradeep worked to a simple plan of keeping the ball as full as possible; a hugely important factor at Leeds. It paid dividends to some degree with England never really leaving first gear. Alistair Cook and Alex hales prodded their way to an attritional 49; Cook  feeling his way towards his 10,000th run, Hales trying to bring all his hard work with Peter Moores at Nottinghamshire to the fore. A gloomy morning with some dimly lit cricket.

Earlier in the day news broke that Dhammika Prasad, who had missed the first test due to a shoulder injury, was now likely to miss the entire test series. This meant Eranga and Pradeep’s responsibility had increased even further. They appeared to bear this added pressure well. Pradeep especially caused a Cook a few worries bowling from around the wicket. Eranga toiled away just outside off stump and was able to move the ball both ways. As opening spells go, Sri Lanka have seen worse ones. However, apart from a few edges and plays and misses, England were well in control. The introduction of all out pace in the form of Dushmantha Chameera didn’t do much to buck the trend either. Mathews didn’t have many options left when he brought on debutant Dasun Shanaka. After a brief settling period, Shanaka produced 8 balls that will be embedded his memory for a long time. It was ironic to see a medium pace bowler, a rarity in itself in modern cricket, tripping up an English top order that had faced better quality in their opening salvos in the County Championship. Shanaka bowled in the right areas but there was enough misjudgements on England’s part than they’d care to admit.

Strangely, Sri Lanka seemed to bowl better when they were not getting wickets than when they picked them up. Ben Stokes got out to a lazy shot to a length delivery. James Vince was uncertain against a decent but not too demanding delivery.

England

If there was any weakness in this England side it was with the trials that a few individuals in the batting line up were undergoing. Nick Compton, Alex Hales, and James Vince had their own battles to overcome. Compton was on another round of establishing himself in the side, Hales to prove that his hard work in trying to control his natural instinct to attack is worthy of being an opening partner to Cook and Vince, the debutant, to prove he belonged at this level.  As we now know, Hales was the only one to succeed in this initial phase.

Jonny Bairstow and Hales ensured further embarrassment was put off for some time. Although they were helped by Sri Lanka’s inexcusable change in their plan of attack in the second session in opting for short balls as opposed to the fuller length that had worked for them in the morning. Safely navigating the first hour on day two will be their next challenge.

Match Situation

In the balance.

Sri Lanka were on top for the 2 hours either side of lunch but then let it split by poor tactical changes in their bowling by bowling by going short to Bairstow. The first hour of the second day will be vital for both teams. England will need to regroup. Sri Lanka should use the extended break from day one to think about what lengths they should be bowling Wickets early will be the difference between a three hundred run total and chasing something less.

Play of the day

Shanaka’s unsuspecting bowling picking up Cook, Root and Compton on debut.

Mahela Jayawardene Wisdom of the Day

Jayawardene is in the Sky commentary team for this tour. So we will keep our ears peeled for his wisdom.

Day one clearly belonged to his response to Mike Atherton when asked about what it was like to play under Trevor Bayliss

“You would be doing well if you kept Trevor up after 8”

Number of times Dasun Shanaka’s name was mispronounced

  1. Seriously.

sri lanka in england 2016

Sri Lankan test collapses are often an act of homage to the 24 all out by the Colts Cricket Club against Lord Hawkes team in 1892.

It is an odd tradition in that one never knows when it might be celebrated.

The most recently known record of this tradition being upheld was in Cardiff in 2011.

There have been rumours that another celebration is being imminently planned in secret. So keep your eyes and ears peeled.

sri lanka in england 2016