That impregnable final frontier

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AFP PHOTO

Some of cricket’s finest captains have failed the sport’s biggest test. Like how some of football’s best captains – Patrick Vieira, Paolo Maldini, Bryan Robson and Francisco Gento never won the World Cup, some of cricket’s greatest leaders such as Steve Waugh, Stephen Fleming, Allan Border and Michael Clarke never won a series in India. That was perhaps the only blemish in their outstanding captaincy stints.

If it doesn’t still tell you the story how tough it is to win a series in India, here’s a more simplified method of driving home the point. Since the turn of the new millennium, in the last 17 years, only two teams have won a Test series in India. Howzat!

Leave alone winning a series, Sri Lanka have not been able to win a Test match in India. India indeed is the impregnable final frontier.

Well, India is not the only place Sri Lanka have not won a Test match by the way. They are yet to win in Australia too. However, not being able to win in India is really strange. In Australia, the hard and bouncy wickets have proved to be successive Sri Lankan teams undoing. But why in India? The conditions aren’t too different from what the players encounter at home. Yet, after 17 appearances in India, Sri Lanka are yet to win a game. Their record in India is ten defeats and seven draws.

It’s strange to think that a decade ago during a period when Sri Lanka had world’s best batsman and best bower that they were unable to win in India. From 2006 to 2010, Kumar Sangakkara was world’s best batsman while Muttiah Muralitharan was world’s leading bowler according to official rankings. Part of the problem why Sri Lanka have not been able to win in India is that the opportunities for them have been few and rare. In the last 23 years, Sri Lanka have played only three Test series in India. At the same time, Pakistan has hosted Sri Lanka for seven bilateral series.

The fault of course is not Board of Control for Cricket in India’s. Often Sri Lanka Cricket had been bailed out by BCCI, who have been generous enough to convert home series against Sri Lanka into away tours to help SLC come out of financial crisis. In the last 23 years, India has visited Sri Lanka on seven occasions to play Test series.

Sanath Jayasuriya

While Sri Lanka have not got the best of records in India, their abysmal show there is actually hyped up as the opportunities have been few and rare. The Indian bowlers feared Sanath Jayasuriya like the plague during his hey days as he ended a few of their careers. Yet, Jayasuriya, a veteran of 110 Test matches, just played four Tests in India. More opportunities would have seen him flourish in conditions that he loved.

Michael-TisseraAlthough the Sri Lankans are yet to win a Test match in India, it must be mentioned here that before being granted Test status, Ceylon defeated India in an unofficial Test match in Ahmedabad in 1964. There was some smart captaincy by Michael Tissera, who took a gamble by declaring with the overnight score expecting the dew to play a part in the morning. The conditions were ideal for Norton Fredrick, whose extreme pace saw India being blown away for 66 runs. Ceylon won by five wickets with Tissera hitting the winning runs. That was the first step towards Sri Lanka being granted Test status.

Can Sri Lanka break the deadlock this time?  It will no doubt be a tedious task.  India are ranked number one in Tests. They have four players ranked among the top ten batters and two of them among the top ten bowlers. Sri Lanka has only Rangana Herath in the top ten.

Even the great man was negotiated smartly by the Indian batsmen in the last series. It remains to be seen how he bounces back in the return series. In 2015 when Pakistan toured Sri Lanka, they negated the left-arm spinners’ effectiveness and the veteran was even dropped from the last Test. Just as when you thought that Pakistan had decoded Herath, he finished the recent series with a rich haul of wickets – 16 in two Tests. Knowing, Herath, he will be a determined man to prove that his guiles can be effective against any team.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful when Dimuth Karunaratne completes 1000 runs in the calendar year! A Sri Lankan batsman completing 1000 runs in a year has become such a rarity since Kumar Sangakkara quit Test cricket. His first innings failures had been the talking point among fans prior to the Pakistan series and having discussed what needs to be done with his school coach Harsha de Silva, Karunaratne seems to have made amends having come up with match winning knocks both in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the first innings. He needs 60 more runs to complete 1000 runs in the calendar year. In 2017, only Hashim Amla and Dean Elgar have scored more runs than the him.

Perhaps what he now needs to work on is 90s play.  In Abu Dhabi he was run out for 93 while in Dubai he missed a maiden double hundred by just four runs. Since Sangakkara quit, no Sri Lankan has yet scored a double. What his rich form has done is to take the pressure off Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal, the team’s two premier batsmen.

The player to watch out for during this series is Sadeera Samarawickrama. In UAE when all were at sea against Yasir Shah, here was a man who had the confidence to drive the first ball he faced in Test cricket. Outstanding running between the wickets, superb fielding, above all great attitude and he certainly is a breath of fresh air.

One area that Sri Lanka seem to have faulted is by not including leg-spinner Jeffrey Vandersay. The selectors have backed Chinaman bowler Lakshan Sandakan instead as back up to Herath and Dilruwan Perera. The only thing that seemed to have gone in Sandakan’s favour is that the selectors’ wanted continuity. Sri Lanka’s coach Nic Pothas was talking about the team lacking characters and Vandersay is one such. The sooner they give him the nod for longer format of the game the better it is.