From batting failures to captaincy changes to injuries, Sri Lanka has had a tough 2018, punctuated by the occasional high of some good performances. As another inconsistent year draws to a close for the Lions, let’s take a look at how things went.
Revenge is a dish best served at home!
When Bangladesh toured Sri Lanka last year, the hosts were expected to steamroll the Tigers. But, in a historical turn of events, the Bangladeshis, 1-0 down in the Test series, came back to square things off in their centenary game, claiming their 1st Test win against Sri Lanka. The ODI series also ended 1-1, not the result Sri Lanka wanted. So, when the Lions flew over for the return series, there’s no doubt revenge was on their minds.
The tour began with an ODI tri-series which included the hosts and Zimbabwe (who Sri Lanka had also lost to in 2017). Things were looking ominous for Sri Lanka when they lost their first two games but they stormed back to win the next two to reach the final, where they beat Bangladesh quite comfortably.
The Tests followed and after an absolute run-fest in the 1st game, where the teams collectively scored 1,226 runs in their 1st essays (yes, you read that right), the teams moved to Dhaka for the 2nd and final Test. A low-scoring affair, the game saw Sri Lanka dismiss the hosts for 110 and 123 to claim a series-clinching 215-run win.
The two T20Is were also dealt with with ease, as the Lions completed a tour that was expected to be tough, quite successfully.
Independence party crashed
Sri Lanka celebrated its 70th anniversary of independence on February 4th 2018 and what better way to mark the occasion than to have two neighbouring countries over for a nice T20I tri-series. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka’s newest arch-rivals would put up a fight but the hosts would ultimately overcome them and go on to face ‘big brother’ India in the big final. In true celebratory fashion, at a packed house at the R Premadasa, Sri Lanka would win the thriller and take home the trophy….. Well, it didn’t quite pan out that way.
The tournament started off with a bang for the hosts, as they beat India, albeit a somewhat depleted Indian side, by 5 wickets. What followed from then on was disaster after disaster. A magnificent 72 off 35 deliveries from Mushfiqur Rahim saw Bangladesh chase down Sri Lanka’s 214 in their 2nd game, a Kohli-less India cruised to a win in their 3rd game and then a calm yet somehow belligerent Mahmudullah Riyad landed the sucker-punch in their 4th game as Sri Lanka crashed out of their own party.
Protests, bans and new stars
A long break awaited the Lankan lads, with no internationals scheduled between March and June, when they would tour the Caribbean.
Sri Lanka had last toured the West Indies for a Test series a decade ago. The tourists hoped that this time they would be able to come away with a series win – an achievement that had evaded the Lions in their previous 3 attempts.
West Indies, bolstered by some impressive batting from their lower order registered a massive 226-run win in Port-of-Spain to take a 1-0 lead in the 3 match series.
Not long after the infamous ‘sandpaper-gate’ sent shockwaves through the cricketing community, the 2nd Test in the Caribbean saw Sri Lanka embroiled in their own ball-tampering scandal. Penalty runs were awarded, tantrums were thrown, footage reviewed and the result was that Sri Lanka were left without their Captain, Coach and Manager for the 3rd Test.
The 2nd Test, which Sri Lanka could perhaps have won if they hadn’t spent a couple of hours protesting the umpires’ decision to award the hosts 5 penalty runs, ended in a draw.
The next match would see Sri Lanka, now led by Suranga Lakmal and sans their 3 best batsmen – Dimuth Karunaratne (injured), Angelo Mathews (left to attend birth of his 2nd child) and Dinesh Chandimal (suspended), produce an inspiring performance with the ball, coming back from conceding a 50-run lead in the 1st innings, to win by 4 wickets. The stars were the young pace duo of Lahiru Kumara and Kasun Rajitha, and of course captain Lakmal, who had restricted the Windies to just 93 in their 2nd essay. With the win, Sri Lanka became the 1st Asian nation to defeat the Calypso kings in Barbados.
Sri Lanka’s last Test series at home was against India in mid-2017 and we all know how that went! The results weren’t pretty, with the hosts losing two games by an innings and the other by 300+ runs. Then came the Proteas, arguable the best touring team in the world, their record would certainly suggest so.
A series that was expected to see Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada rip into the Lankan batsmen, saw instead batsmen from both teams struggle to come to terms with the slow, low dustbowls being offered up. The series saw Sri Lanka cross the 300-run mark once, while South Africa managed scores of 126, 73, 124 and 290… Not what you’d expect from a team that had the likes of Dean Elgar, Hashim Amla and Faf Du Plessis in their line-up.
As expected, Rangana Herath and Dilruwan Perera feasted on the Saffer batsmen’s insecurities against spin but for the visitors, Keshav Maharaj really set the tone, grabbing 16 wickets in the two games, including a 12 of the 14 wickets taken by SA in the 2nd Test at the SSC. A comprehensive 2-0 series win and Sri Lanka were back to being dominant at home.
The limited overs leg, on the other hand, went the other way. The hosts were brushed aside in the first 3 ODIs and managed consolation wins in the 4th and 5th to concede the series 3-2 to the visitors. Another win in the only T20I played meant that Sri Lanka were the happier of the two teams at the end of a long tour.
To the UAE and back in 3 days
Ah, the Asia Cup. Sri Lanka have won it 5 times and only finished outside the top 2 twice…. That was until 2018. Grouped alongside Bangladesh and Afghanistan, no one expected it to be a walk in the park for the Lankans but making it to the next stage was a given, right? Wrong. Sri Lanka didn’t just lose their 2 group games, they were absolutely thrashed, going down by 137 and 91 runs. Sri Lanka played Bangladesh on the 15th of September and were back home by the 18th. The abysmal show resulted in skipper Angelo Mathews, who had been asked to lead the side earlier in the year after stepping down in 2017, not only being forced to relinquish his captaincy but also being dropped from the limited overs teams due to ‘fitness concerns’.
‘Out-lioned’ by the Three Lions
The Asia Cup was done, the captaincy changes were done and Sri Lanka were back home, getting ready to play perhaps their more favoured format, Test cricket (so long as it wasn’t against India). But first, they’d have to try and survive another 5-match ODI series and T20I against the Three Lions.
England were their customarily brilliant selves in the ODIs. Hardly ever really troubled, they swept aside Sri Lanka to race to an unassailable 3-0 lead at the end of the 4th ODI (the 1st game was abandoned due to inclement weather). And then suddenly, as if woken from a long nap, Sri Lanka had the perfect game! With the bat, the top 4 (Dickwella, Samarawickrama, Chandimal and Mendis) all went past 50 and some latter half hitting saw the hosts set England 367 to win. Sri Lanka had crossed the 300-run mark just once previously in 2018 so getting to 366 was a pretty big deal. Then the bowlers stepped up, and had England dead and buried at 132/9 in 26.1 overs when the rain came down – winners by 219 runs!
The hosts lost the only T20I but with the 3 match Test series coming, all eyes were on the retiring stalwart Rangana Herath and of course a whitewash. By all accounts, Herath was nowhere near his best in terms of fitness but the man who had delivered on so many occasions, was ready to give it one last go and call it day where the journey had begun for him, in Galle.
Galle came and went and at the end, Sri Lanka had lost by 211 runs – England’s ‘new keeper’ Ben Foakes (because, admit it, not many Sri Lankan fans even knew who he was before Galle), had taken what was to be Herath’s fairytale and turned it into his own.
Sri Lanka were not expecting to lose the 1st Test, but it didn’t matter. They’d come back and win the Tests in Pallekelle and SSC – Galle was just a minor bump on their road to a series win. Sri Lanka’s spinners would zone back in for the next two tests and England didn’t play spin well anyway, so it was just a foregone conclusion, really.
Pallekelle came and went, Sri Lanka lost again. Suddenly, almost unbelievably, it wasn’t the English batsmen who were struggling to play spin, it was the hosts being undone by Jack Leach!
By the time the SSC Test came along, a 3-0 series result was a very real possibility, but just not the 3-0 everyone had expected. Jonny Bairstow, whose place Foakes had claimed, roared his way to a 100, England’s 4th of the Series (Sri Lanka had 0), in the first innings and almost before Sri Lanka could fathom what was happening, what had happened, the 3-0 humiliation was complete.
The flame that burned twice as bright
After the disappointment against England, Sri Lanka began their long overseas stay in New Zealand. Their test record wasn’t very good against the Kiwis, away from home, managing just 2 wins and 10 losses over the past 30+ years. And things seemed to be heading towards an 11th loss at the end of the 3rd day of play in the 1st Test, with Sri Lanka on 20/3 after Tom Latham’s marathon 276 had left them trailing by 296 in their 2nd innings. Many Sri Lankan fans expected the game to be done and dusted by the time they woke up on day 4, but not only did that not happen, but Mathews and Mendis batted through the day (the first time it had been done in the last decade) to post 120* and 141* respectively as much of day 5 was washed off by rain.
The drawn 1st Test meant that Sri Lanka were in with a very real chance of a series win and Suranga Lakmal strengthened Sri Lanka’s hopes, sending the Kiwi batsmen packing for 178 on day 1. Sri Lanka looked ready to grind the opposition, finishing the day on 88/4 but a maniacal 1st session on day 2 saw the visitors lose their last 6 wickets for 10 runs and with it any real chance of pushing for a win. A ruthless batting display from the Kiwis and brittle batting by Sri Lanka saw them lose the game by a mammoth 423 runs – thereby ending their 2018 on the lowest of lows.
The good, the bad and the ugly
Kusal Mendis finished 2018 as the 2nd highest run-getter for the year, behind only ‘King’ Kohli, managing 1023 runs in 12 matches. The year also saw the emergence of the likes of Lahiru Kumara and Kasun Rajitha as real contenders to lead Sri Lanka’s attack in the future, particularly after their performances in the Caribbean and the former’s in New Zeland. Thisara Perera too was another bright spot for the Lankan fans, 2nd in the list of highest run-getters and wicket-takers of 2018.
Akila Dananjaya was to be Sri Lanka’s main strike force in the months to come, particularly with the World Cup around the corner, but with his action now needing to be remodelled, whether he will even feature in Sri Lanka’s World Cup plans is something to consider. Angelo Mathews shone brightly in 2018 and seemed to be back to his 2014-esque best when he slammed a ton against New Zealand 2 weeks ago, but alas, his hamstring had the last say for 2018 too and it is doubtful if he will play much of a part leading into the World Cup.
The captaincy did the rounds in 2018, going from Mathews to Chandimal to Malinga. The way Mathews was dealt with post-Asia Cup left a bitter feeling and his response, gesturing towards his bat to say that it will do the talking, pumping his biceps and the pushup celebration have meant that this “feud” will not be going away any time soon.
With a World Cup around the corner and tours to Australia and South Africa set to precede the showpiece event, Sri Lanka will have their work cut out in what promises to be a tough 2019.