The sightscreens are painted white, the advertising boards are in place, the outfield has been trimmed perfectly as Pallekelle International Cricket Stadium gets ready to host the first Test between Australia and Sri Lanka for the ‘Warne-Muralitharan’ trophy starting on the 26th of July.
It is a rare occasion when a team starts a Test series as underdogs in their own den but that is the case this time around when the world number 1 Test team, Australia returns to the tropical nation of Sri Lanka after a five-year long lapse.
The visitors are confident of overturning their poor record in sub-continental conditions and they will not get a better chance than this to do so in what has been a happy hunting ground for them. They have roped in one of the greatest, if not THE greatest spinner to play the sport, Muttiah Muralitharan, arrived in the Island well ahead of the start of first Test and unsurprisingly have done everything possible in terms of preparation before this assignment.
The Sri Lankans are craving wins like the Sahara desert craves rain. They have recorded only the solitary win against a Test-playing nation across all formats this year. The ‘rebuilding phase’ has dragged on for far too long for Mathews and his men and the captain himself admits it’s been a ‘frustrating few months’.
“We have to play our best cricket to beat the world no.1 team. They are very consistent and a strong unit.” Mathews said at the pre-match press conference.
With a spate of injuries to their frontline seamers, Sri Lanka will rely heavily on their old warhorse, Rangana Herath to carry the attack. Herath will likely be partnered with the disciplined off-break bowler, Dilruwan Perera, with Sri Lanka going for his experience ahead of the untested chinaman Lakshan Sandakan.
The final combination is almost impossible to predict, but what is certain is a debutant in the line-up, most probably Dhananjaya De Silva at no.6; Vice-Captain Dinesh Chandimal will keep wickets and bat at no.4.
According to Skipper Mathews, Suranga Lakmal is suffering from hamstring tightness and the management will only take a call on him tomorrow.
The visitors look strong in every department and the inclusion of a second spinner in Steve O’Keefe will no doubt further strengthen their bowling attack. David Warner has been deemed fit to return after suffering from a hand injury during the tri-series in West Indies.
Only three players out of the 15-man squad have played Test cricket in Sri Lanka but the two seamers, two spinners and one seaming all-rounder will be the go-to combination for the Aussies.
Having just been handed the ICC Test Mace recognizing Australia as the No.1 Test team, Australian skipper Steven Smith was pretty confident of his side’s chances. “We have watched plenty of footage of their unknown new players. They are a very young team at the moment but they have some quality spinners specially, Rangana Herath. It’s good that we came here a bit early as we are accustomed to the heat, humidity and the wicket”
Confirmed XI – David Warner, Joe Burns, Usman Khawaja, Steven Smith, Adam Voges, Mitchell Marsh, Peter Nevill, Steve O’Keefe, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazelwood, Nathan Lyon.
Pitch and Conditions
The overhead conditions in Pallekelle are perfect for Test cricket even though there are some clouds hovering above the mountains. The pitch looks dry and seems to have a lot of runs in it. It is likely that we will see spin menacing the batsmen from day 1 itself. The Lankan skipper said the wicket looked really good and dry but will see some spin as it might wear out as the game progresses.
Mathews believes it a tough challenge to turn the tides around but will surely try to make amends for what has been a pretty disappointing year so far.
Australia on the other hand will be riding a wave of confidence as the World’s No. 1 team.