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.

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

The Openers

Perhaps more than anywhere in the world the performance of your openers matters when you are in England. Exposing your middle order in conditions where the ball moves a lot in the first ten overs is best avoided. Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva performed this role admirably the last time Sri Lanka was in England. In fact, one of the forgotten and undervalued contributions on that tour was how these two kept at bay the English bowlers from getting a crack at Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Angelo Mathews, in the first ten overs. They were slow and they didn’t put together record-breaking partnerships numbers but they did their job.

Two years later, their performance will arguably again be the single biggest factor when it comes to how Sri Lanka’s top order is likely to perform. Last time they had a safety net the size of Sangakkara and Jayawardene. This time, they have a young, able but untested top and middle order with not many tests between them. With the England bowlers having signalled their intention for dealing out some sweet revenge this time around, Karunaratne and Silva will be the first targets. The lead up to the test for both has not been great. Although Karunartne hopefully peaked around the corner with his century on the last day against the Foxes. The key again won’t really be the runs or the pace of runs, it will be blunting that new ball as much as possible.

The Middle Order

The fact that Lahiru Thirimanne was even picked for this tour raised a few eyebrows. For a batsman who has scored two half centuries in 35 innings  over the last 2 years and the precision dissection of his technique offered up by James Anderson in 2014, he should count himself very lucky to be in England. Still, he has the support of ex-players, ex-selectors, current selectors and a litany of fans who still believe in him. It is hard to see how Thirimanne will overcome his lack of runs, lack of confidence at this level and face up to Anderson and Chris Broad again and come out on top

Kusal Mendis has shined in his limited opportunities. He seems have developed the skills that make up the qualities of a good number three. Mendis plays mostly on instincts and has the ability to play at his own pace within the context of the game. A rare skill. At 21 with only three tests to his name, the responsibility he bears is a big one. Especially given the player that occupied his post previously. It’s a challenge that could make him or break him but there is a quiet sense of optimism about his batting.

Mathews has worn the heavy weight of expectations placed on him well so far. His batting entered another realm a few years ago with the captaincy. And without his runs, the 2014 win would have never been a reality. While his runs are going to be a key again, it will be how he centres himself to guide his young batting line that will matter more. He has batsmen who are out of form, batsmen who are still in their training wheels and a few of his own demons to manage as he looks to get Sri Lanka over the line. There is no fall-back position for him this tour without Sangakkara and Jayawardene. The pressure on him is immense. His experience in these conditions is what will be drawn on by the youngsters. In short, Mathews has a lot on his plate. The worrying factor is that it might affect his runs. It’s a vicious cycle.

Dinesh Chandimal appeared to have turned a corner when he flayed India at Galle in 2015 for what was easily the best innings of his career. And then normal service resumed. Chamdimal is a player stuck on trying to figure out what kind of batsman he wants to be. Initially, he was a carefree attacking batsman. Then, perhaps with the ascendancy to captaincy and having become a “senior” player, his approach changed. If you watch his innings it’s like watching him battle the bowlers but equally himself. A war rages on within him between the batsman Chandimal naturally is and the batsman he thinks he needs to be. The former is when he’s been at his best. An iteration of that self in England is going to be important for Sri Lanka.  But it all be down to which Chandimal wins inside his head.

Niroshan Dickwella might get picked solely to take the gloves off Chandimal. He’s yet another player with a lot to prove. His runs against Essex stand him in good stead but he’s not yet spoken of in the same level as Kusal Mendis. This tour is as bigger an opportunity as he will get to change that.

The Lower Order

Traditionally this area of the test batting line up is one that Sri Lanka has given up on over the last decade. And then Kusal Perera debuted and Milinda Siriwardene showed up. Perera will sit out the tests following his ICC – WADA did he, didn’t he drug fiasco. Siriwardana would struggle to buy a run at the moment.  It is certainly an area of concern given that the top order itself is inexperienced and prone to being brittle. Both Siriwardana and Perera offered a new found counter-attacking philosophy down the order which  was a breath of fresh air for Sri Lanka.

The most recent disciple of this path is Dasun Shanaka, another rookie who has given the selectors quite a bit to munch on with his hundred against Leicester.  Whoever gets the nod for this position, it is hard to underscore how important a role this spot  will play during the tests. He will need to have a series where he averages upwards of forty on this tour. And play a key role along with Mathews when batting with the tail. Otherwise, this could potentially be the pivot in the line-up where Sri Lanka loses matches from.

The Bowlers

Dhammika Prasad, Shaminda Eranga, Nuwan Pradeep, Rangana Herath, Dushmantha Chameera, Suranga Lakmal

200 overs for nine wickets for 787 runs. That was the tally of the attack Sanath Jayasuriya has dubbed the “best attack in the world” in their two tour matches in England. Whatever happens with the batting if the bowlers do not perform Sri Lanka will have difficult month in England. Prasad was once again going to be the key. He is a bowler who was up trending in his career, a bowler who has the experience in getting wickets in England and the player who has bulldozed his way into being the leader of the attack. His injury for the first test is Sri Lanka’s equivalent of Glenn Mcgrath missing the 2005 Ashes test at Lords. It is that bigger a deal. Without Prasad leading the way Eranga and Pradeep will have to dial up their performance level. So far both these bowlers have played the supporting role during Prasad’s rise. Whether they can deliver on their own from the front line remains to be seen.

Dushmantha Chameera is quite easily the most exciting Sri Lankan fast bowling prospect since Chaminda Vaas. Chameera is raw, he has the pace, he has the bounce and most importantly he’s not a brain-dead tear away. He’s got a good change of pace and he thinks about how he will set up batsmen for his quick bouncer. Whether England’s batsman will find his pace unsettling as most batsmen in international cricket have is going to be an important factor. How Mathews uses Chameera will also be key. So far he has opted to use the youngster in shortish spells. And this should suit him and his frail body well.

Sri Lanka’s biggest problem, though, is likely to be the use of the old ball. None of the quick bowlers have mastered reverse swing or come very close to finding it. The ability to break partnerships late in the day or when the opposition has bedded down is going to be a struggle for this team. Sri Lanka’s chance lies in getting wickets early for Rangana Herath to spin a yarn around the lower order.

The Opposition

With the cloud of the Kevin Pietersen saga behind Alistair Cook and his men, England certainly is breaking new ground and territory. Paul Farbrace and Trevor Bayliss have infused a sense of modernism to their cricket. They have experience where it counts, in the top order and in their bowling.  They are the hosts and the more settled side who are looking to kick off their summer on a high and entertain fans.  England are also hurting from the 2014 loss and want to put it right. Stuart Broad has often been talking about serving up a plate of good old fashioned revenge.

Captaincy

Neither Cook nor Mathews is particularly inspiring as captains. Cook though, has experienced players whom he can rely on in a fight. Joe Root, Anderson and Broad have been through many difficulties in their careers over the last five years and form the core group that Cook will depend on. He can afford to captain on auto pilot.

For Mathews, the task difficulty has increased tenfold since 2014. The team is low on confidence. He does not have the experience of Mahela Jayawardene or Sangakkara to help out when in a rut. His team lacks the knowhow where it matters in the middle order and his bowlers are not in any particular form. Much of how Sri Lanka fares in the tests will depend on how much of a maverick Mathews will attempt to be. His use of his spinner and Chameera and how he guides an inexperienced and untested batting line up will be the main issues that need attention.  In a team like Sri Lanka, in the current incarnation that they are in, captaincy can go a long way. It remains to be seen whether Mathews can evolve himself to meet this challenge

Verdict

It would not be a surprise if this series ends up being a whitewash in England’s favour. The hosts are more settled, more experienced and better prepared for the battle. For Sri Lanka, the best hope is that they don’t lose in an utterly embarrassing manner.  The odds are clearly against Sri Lanka. With weather possibly being a factor in early May they may get away with a draw at some stage.

In the end, it is truly up to this scattering of talented individuals to pull together as a team to prove that they are moving forward as a team and not fading into the giant shadows cast upon by their predecessors.

Prediction  – 2-0 to England.

sri lanka in england 2016

Sri Lanka have been par for the course so far . The performance at Chelmsford is likely to be the blueprint of what we are likely to see for the rest of this tour.

A mediocre first innings total. Bowlers that not being penetrative. And second innings disasters. The only reason Essex stopped the hurt is because of the enforced 100 over declaration rule by the ECB.

Sri Lanka have so far been a deer caught in the headlights. They expected early May cold and a pitch that seemed other-worldly with grass on it but so far the weather has been hot, the pitch flat but the challenge has still remained the same.

Batting

Undone by a school boy in the first innings. Andrew Beard didn’t do anything significant. But he did enough. And bowled in the proverbial corridor of uncertainty. That was more than plenty for Dimuth Karunaratne who just missed a straight ball and fell over with his technique. Maybe his eyes were still in a different time zone? Earlier Kaushal Silva edged one that nipped away.

Earlier Kaushal Silva edged one that nipped away. This can happen to an opener. It’s a red ball. It’s England. Silva is probably still dazed from that knock to his head. So this is understandable.

There was a bit of rebuilding by Kusal Mendis and Chandimal before Chandimal played an extravagant forward defense and edged behind. The ball really didn’t do anything here either. It was a straight ball for all intents and purposes.

Kusal Mendis had played well apparently but it all seems to have gone down when I dozed off with the BBC commentary in my ear. Dickwella made a case. Mathews played out a thirty. Siriwardene played to form.

The rest of the batting played out exactly as you’d expect. A whiff of resistance but an unceremonious lower order collapse.

In the end it was a bland, drawn out car crash in slow motion. I remained neutral emotionally as I listened to each wicket fall because it had an air of familiarity and homeliness to how reliably Sri Lanka faltered.

 

Bowling

Death pays for life in A Game of Thrones.

Prasad’s shoulder paid for 4 wickets in 605 balls.

Sri Lanka’s tour could be over before it begins.

On a sunnier note Sanath Jayasuriya thinks Sri Lanka has the best attack in the world. And Thirimanne sorted out his visa problems.

 

 

 

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Cricketers by nature have an ego. Some KP annoyingly so and some act humble as a pretence to cover it up. It is a by-product of their skill. It doesn’t matter if it’s an international player or your best mates 12 year old son who just joined your local club. There is someone we think we are better than.It’s is this ego that lends into the sort of player that you are. Mahela is one of those humble players. And he played a humble, dogged innings – which is natural to him.

The innings Mathews played wasn’t that. It was so far removed from what every bone in his body is telling him to do.

Just a couple of days ago I said that Matthews should lose his test spot if he doesn’t get 100 chasing 350 with the tail. He didn’t. But he shouldn’t be dropped either. Mathews finally showed that he belongs at the test level. Test Cricket is at most times a battle within yourself. A self examination within a team environment. Mathews took on himself today and beat himself into a pulp.

First came the nervous prods and mistimed drives. Then came the reining in. Ugly defence shots. Control. But not too much control that he charged down the wicket and mishit a few. The Aussies were testing Mathews and Mathews was testing himself.

Sure there is disappointment but there should be satisfaction as well. Mathews didn’t need a hundred. He needed proof that he belonged. That he could graft it out when his team demanded it. That he could control himself.  That is what makes good players great . And Mathews is certainly on his way to becoming better than most.

angelo mathews sri lanka v australia 2011