Part 2 of the Interview with Sidath Wettimuny where we discussed domestic cricket
Part 2 of the Interview with Sidath Wettimuny where we discussed domestic cricket
When Sri Lanka arrived in England they were well aware of the challenges that lay ahead of them. The early May weather would be a factor.
Their inexperience in batting, and in general, would count against them. Their two pillars had retired. And they needed to pick up wickets without Dhammika Prasad.
All these factors were pulling the noose just that little bit tighter well before the tour had even begun, so Sri Lanka knew that they could ill afford to make mistakes. And if they did make them that they would have to avoid repeating them. Every aspect of their game needed to be at its optimum level to compete.
Some mistakes are drawn out by the opposition, as with any sporting contest. And there were plenty of those for Sri Lanka on this tour. But the other kind, the ones you make on your own volition, those sadly became the DNA of their entire tour.
In a tour riddled with self-sabotage, it is perhaps unsurprising that the rot began at the head. For a side bereft of experience, Angelo Mathews had to play a crucial role in the direction of Sri Lanka’s fortunes on this tour. He needed to inspire, lead from the front and bring his team together. Instead, he often cut a figure of despondency, isolated in his thoughts, and clueless when it came to directing his team out in the middle.
This tour was an opportunity for him to break away from the reputation of being negative and conservative. Perhaps it was even a necessity for Sri Lanka to find a way to traverse the English challenge. Instead, whenever Sri Lanka was presented with opportunities he turned his back on them. Whenever a fork lay in front of him to be either proactive or allow the game to drift, Mathews’ seemed to trip himself and stumble into the oft-beaten path.
On Day 1 in the first Test, England were 83-5 just after lunch. Mathews and Sri Lanka began bowling short to Jonny Bairstow. There is a theory that Bairstow is a bit suspect against the short ball early on. So out came deep fielders on the legside. All of Sri Lanka’s wickets up until that point had come behind the wicket to full-length balls. The change in tactic to Bairstow meant Sri Lanka abandoned this plan. Bairstow was allowed to settle in and he proceeded to hurt Sri Lanka.
The 2nd day began with Sri Lanka still in the game with England at 171-5. Mathews began the day with only 2 slips and a point in the cordon. 10 overs later there was a sweeper. With no real threat to them, Bairstow and Alex Hales built the one partnership of substance in that game and killed Sri Lanka’s chances.
Day 2 at Durham in the second Test began in a similar fashion. England were 310-6 and the idea was to bowl them out for under 350. Mathews employed a deep point to Moeen Ali who was on 28. There was one slip fielder. The second ball of the day was bottom edged for 4 past that lone slip fielder. On the 13th ball of the day, Ali was dropped. The next 3 balls were on a length forcing Ali to defend. In the 5th ball of that over Ali drove it into the deep cover fielder for 2. Pressure. Released.
He then took his captaincy to a new low, when he attacked the tail with deep fielders. With Ali who had a century by now, this was understandable. It’s a time honoured tactic; give the single to the set batsman and attack the tailender. Somehow, the fielders never came in for either batsman. Mathews either forgot this part of this strategy or he had dozed off entirely in his mind.
At Lords, Sri Lanka’s slip cordon looked, for lack of better word, weird. At times there was no first slip, there was a second or third slip, there was no fourth slip and there was a gully. Or something. It was hard to understand. Edges routinely went through these gaps. Notably off Bairstow, who once again was taking the game away from Sri Lanka. It was all a bit Inspector Clouseau than Sun Tzu from Mathews.
Some would argue that Mathews is pushed into these positions because of the lack of firepower he has in his attack. Before the start of the tour, this stance had some merit. But the bowling attack, particularly the fast bowlers, routinely got England into difficult positions in all 3 of their first innings in each Test. In each instance, Mathews’ lack of attacking intent or any semblance of a strategy to push the advantage, supremely supported by astonishingly poor fielding, ensured Sri Lanka fumbled their opportunities as much as they did their catches.
Ah yes, the catching. In all, there were 10 chances that were put down. Sometimes teams can get away with a dropped chance or two. Not so for Sri Lanka.
At Headingley Bairstow was dropped on 70. He scored 140. At Durham, Ali was dropped on 36 and 55. He scored 155. Chris Woakes dropped on 8, scored 39. At Lords, Bairstow on 11, scored 167. As chances go, nearly all of these were on the lower end of the difficulty scale. For a side with limited wicket taking opportunities Sri Lanka should be looking to convert half chances to full ones. And chase quarter chances like the fate of the planet rested on it. But instead, they dropped them, wrung their hands and tried to hide behind a smile. Over to you Graham Ford and co. Please fix.
Of course the biggest spotlight on this tour was in Sri Lanka’s batting. And they did not disappoint. Unless you are a Sri Lankan supporter, in which case, they not only disappointed you, they left you curled up in the foetal position, sobbing.
Their first 3 innings lasted 36.4, 35.4 and 43.3 overs. At Headingley, they could be forgiven. Conditions were brutal and James Anderson was on song. They were underprepared and they fell like dominoes. Their techniques were viciously exposed.
At Durham in the first innings, they still seemed to be recovering from the shock. At the end of those 3 innings, Sri Lanka’s series was over.
The fight in the second innings at Durham only staved off the embarrassment for another day. At Lord’s, on the flattest pitch all tour, Sri Lanka did well for a day. Then a few clouds gathered and England pushed themselves a bit harder and Sri Lanka just fell over yet again.
It was the familiar issues with the moving ball. Discussing this at length almost seems inconsequential until changes are made to the domestic system with better pitches that encourage fast bowlers. In the last Premier League season, the top 15 bowlers were all spinners. Most of Sri Lanka’s batsmen learn to play the moving ball at international level. It is a perpetual problem. And it will not be overcome anytime soon.
The tour was not without some slivers of hope. Unexpected, but heart-warmingly, Sri Lanka’s attack shouldered the burden without Prasad and Chameera admirably. Had chances been taken at pivotal moments, they could have made greater strides towardsSanath Jayasuriya’s outlandish claim of them being the best attack in the world.
Pradeep was the player of the series for Sri Lanka. Regardless of what the official accolades might indicate. He found seam movement, and swing and troubled the batsmen with the new and old balls. Eranga showed similar signs of encouragement. But with his action now in question, it might amount to nought.
Kaushal Silva added a much-needed feather to his cap with positive intent to keep the scoreboard moving instead of gluing himself to the crease. Together with Dimuth Karunaratne the two continue to grow as an opening pair.
Kusal Mendis showed that he could make the number 3 position his own. He seems to have the instinctive play that could make him a special player. Australia’s tour in a few months will need to see him consistently pass 50 to deliver on what he has built in England.
Dinesh Chandimal scored a timely century to prove what he is capable of. But did little else to prove he can be trusted to go further up the order than his preferred number 6 position.
There was not much else to bring a smile to Sri Lankan supporters. Except perhaps Rangana Herath’s batting. Do you sense the irony?
On the fourth day at Lord’s, Sri Lanka had a number of decisions that seemed to go against them. The not a no ball, no-ball, was to be the tipping point. Flags were thrown over the dressing room balcony in solidarity. Supporters were rioting on social media about the injustice that had been dealt the team and them. It was as if everyone suddenly forgot how poor Sri Lanka had been all tour. As if a wicket in a dead rubber meant everything. As if they had not been outplayed, outclassed by England at every turn when it mattered.
This team has won 1 away Test in the last two years. They are now ranked the 7th in the world. This series was lost through mistakes, poor leadership and a lack of basic skills. Not a conspiracy between the ICC, MCC, the umpires, the Big 3 or DRS.
Bad luck and injustices did not find the edge of their bats. It did not force their captain, a fighter by reputation, to give up so easily and make poor decisions. It did not make them drop catches. It was all Sri Lanka. They made the mistakes and repeated them all tour. And they continue to hide behind the “transition” tag. If there is something to be angry about it is this. Everything else is just deflecting having to accept and settle for Sri Lanka’s mediocrity.
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.
There can be no illusions about the current state of Sri Lankan cricket. Last year was hard. The home season was brutal. Sri Lanka’s only series win came against the West Indies. Against India, Sri Lanka won the first test and lost the remaining two to lose the series. Pakistan who toured before India won the first test and the last. The ghost of two away tours to New Zealand, where they lost all 4 tests still haunts them.
Within those battles and loses, Sri Lanka have had days very similar to their change of fortunes at Chester-Le-Street. Against New Zealand in December of 2014, when they were asked to follow on with a massive 303 deficit Sri Lanka somehow summoned their resolve to score over 400 and make New Zealand bat again. Against India in 2015 they started their second innings 192 runs in arrears. They were 3 down with 5 runs on the board before they knew what had happened. Then 95 for 5. That time Dinesh Chandimal played the innings of his career and together with a couple of others and a helping of Herath brilliance pulled Sri Lanka from abyss and went on to win that match at Galle
It’s as if Sri Lanka need to be pushed to a corner with no avenues for escape before they respond. Maybe that is the lesson here. They are reacting rather than taking the game by the horns. When they have had the game under control they let it go. Sri Lanka have had opportunities in both tests so far with the ball to find a corner for themselves in the game. Only to squander them with poor tactics and fielding and then even worse batting. It is as if they face opportunity in the eye and say “‘No, not today”
So finally Sri Lanka have been provoked into a reaction again. It all began with a simple adjustment to their approach. Where before they had been timid and overawed, in the second innings they have shown enthusiasm and finally, finally, a bit of life. There were off stump guards. There was the avoiding of stepping foot inside the corridor of uncertainty. There were positive leaves. There were leaves on length There were quick singles. Some attempted even when they weren’t really there. So much so that Kaushal Silva nearly ran himself out a couple of times. But who cared. These guys were trying. They were doing something. Anything. And it was beautiful.
This team has days like this in them. They’ve had days like this before. The blueprint is there. But it seems to get flushed from their memory after a while. Only to be accessed randomly. This is the sort of day Sri Lanka needs to bottle up and wear on their neck like a sweethearts keepsake. The sort of day they need to pack away like a tent and unfurl everywhere they go. All the time.
Chandimal, Siriwardana, Herath, Pradeep, Lakmal, Eranga. Sri Lanka never thought their test batting hopes would hinge on these players. But they do. No one ever thought Sri Lanka would take this game into the fourth day. But they have. So far on this tour, they’ve not managed to link two of these days next to each other. Go on Sri Lanka, give us another.
Day 2 at Chester-Le-Street, began, much like did, on Day 2 at Headingley. With Sri Lanka still very much within striking distance of breaking the game in their favour. At Leeds, England started the day on 170-5, at Durham, with batting conditions improving, Sri Lanka was preparing to reel in England from advancing their 316-6 position. But, instead, both days ended with any promise of Sri Lanka gaining ground in tatters. It is as if there is an unwritten law that prevents Sri Lanka from stringing together two good days next to each other.
However, Durham was more painful given that Day one had seen Sri Lanka mending some of their mistakes from the game before. The fielding which had been so abject in the first Test improved beyond any supporters wildest imagination. Regrettably it was a false dawn.
At the heart of this iteration is Angelo Mathews. Sri Lanka’s captain, leader and the most senior player in the side. The man tasked with shepherding this inexperienced side through one of the toughest years of Test cricket Sri Lanka has to battle through. Or rather endure through given the current state of affairs.
Day two at Headingley saw Mathews oddly employ boundary riders at the start of play. He pulled out the same tactic again at Durham. This was at a time Sri Lanka were trying to bowl England out for under 350. It made as much sense as it did a week ago.
When the bowlers had finally broken through to the tail end of England, Mathews did not seek to finish things off. Instead, he once again spread the field for Moeen Ali, who by now had a century to his name, in the hopes of giving him a single early in the over so that his bowlers could attack the tail-ender. The traditional approach then is to bring in the field in once again to prevent the set batsman taking easy single to retain the strike. Yet, Mathews seemed to have forgotten this part of the plan. And even more bizarrely, Ali also refused the singles in those last 2 balls of the over. This was not in a one off over either. It was an extended passage of play. It was truly astonishing cricket. There have been many claims for slights against the spirit of the game in the past, surely, this must one also be considered as such.
Ironically, Mahela Jayawardene, considered by some to be one of Sri Lanka’s finest captains, was in the commentary box at the time. Had it not been for the fact that he was actively trying to work out just what Mathews was up to and attempt to present that to the listeners, he would have been lost for words. It is fair to say Jayawardene was seething at the time and perhaps even embarrassed. Mahela has otherwise been mild mannered and soft spoken in his first foray into commentary in this series. This was first real instance of him getting worked up. It really was that bad.
Then, of course, there were the dropped catches. There were three of them. And with each drop, Mathews seems to unravel and they were leading him towards decision-making that let Sri Lanka down badly. Each mistake deepened the cracks that had formed in his mind. It became a terribly vicious cycle.
This was in sharp contrast to the Mathews we saw back in 2014 on Sri Lanka’s last tour to England. In it, he led from the front with runs. He shuffled his bowlers endlessly chasing for victories. If one tenth of that Mathews had turned up in 2016, Sri Lanka would have been infinitely better off.
It seemed inevitable that his negativity and frozen mind would seep into batting. Mathews has never had the best defensive technique. And his weight of runs as captain came when he was able to tighten it sufficiently. In the three innings on this tour, all that hard work seems to have gradually loosened. He played an expansive drive to a ball miles outside his off stump before edging behind a couple of balls later. Everyone heard the nick. Surely this included Mathews. Having come under fire for not reviewing his dismissal in the first innings at Leeds, Sri Lanka’s captain played to the audience by reviewing it this time.
It was the sign of a man who had completely lost his way in his mind. Mathews was broken. Sri Lanka were crumbling around him as a result.
Coming into this series, there were many question marks for Sri Lanka. How would their inexperienced batting order fare in early May England? Would the bowling attack be able to repeat the heroics of 2014? What is Rangana Herath’s role? How would the team respond to losing Dhammika Prasad? The list goes on. The one constant that all the answers to these hinged on was Mathews. He was the man who had to lead, score runs, captain well and take responsibility.
At the moment, Sri Lanka is being flayed alive on this tour. They expected battle wounds. They expected a body count. But it is disappointing and unexpected that they were felled by their heart being pierced first.