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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.