Sri Lanka’s Test team look to future as Australia briefly slip back into past | Cricket

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So in the small city of Galle ended a momentous few days on the field and beyond. For Sri Lanka the nation, a popular revolt removed a tarnished president from power. For Sri Lanka the cricket team, a stunning turnaround swept away the visiting Australians to level a Test series. It would be naff to equate the two, but it would equally be naive to discount the broad as an influence on the narrow. Players are people too. For months, Sri Lankans en masse have sweltered through nightly power cuts, daily shortages of essentials and weekly price spikes. Transport paralysis has caused economic atrophy. The departing prime minister says the country is bankrupt. On the back of the pandemic, there is a national level of exhaustion.

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In this context, Sri Lanka’s players had to absorb a belting from the visitors in the first Test, bowled out in 22 overs as Australia’s spinners turned supposed home advantage against them to finish the match before its allotted halfway mark. Nobody looked competent against Nathan Lyon. Positive Covid tests started coming in, first removing Angelo Mathews mid-match and then a slew of squad players between Tests. Replacements were drafted in, then replacements for replacements. One vastly inexperienced bowling attack was replaced by another even more so. Of the four spin options eventually picked, three were on debut.

And yet, and yet. Those bowlers might have been inexperienced in Tests, but among them was Prabath Jayasuriya, 30 years of age, with a decade of first-class cricket and more than 200 wickets to his credit. National captain Dimuth Karunaratne is also Jayasuriya’s captain at the Sinhalese Sports Club, and saw him as a bowler to trust. Jayasuriya delivered, sending down 52 overs of skilful left-arm spin, drifting the ball in the sea breeze, finding turn when it mattered, and becoming only the fifth player to take 12 or more wickets on debut.

For Australia, it was a slip back into a past when spin caused conniptions. The lowest point was the previous visit to Sri Lanka, in 2016. They were smashed three times, with only Steve Smith able to cope as the wonderfully understated left-armer Rangana Herath caused collapse after collapse. A more targeted approach to spin selection and preparation followed, and began to bear fruit.

Anti-government protesters demonstrate from the 17th-century Dutch fort during the second day of Sri Lanka’s second Test against Australia in Galle.
Anti-government protesters demonstrate from the 17th-century Dutch fort during the second day of Sri Lanka’s second Test against Australia in Galle. Photograph: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

In 2017 in India, Smith was immense but was also supported: Glenn Maxwell made a century, Peter Handscomb and Shaun Marsh batted out a day for a draw. The same year in Bangladesh, David Warner had his only convincing sequence in Asia, while Maxwell and Handscomb continued their growth, only to be discarded from tours under Justin Langer. Usman Khawaja cracked the code in Dubai in 2018, Marnus Labuschagne emerged. By the time they visited Pakistan in 2022, Smith was no longer a one-man show.

On this visit to Sri Lanka, then, each player had developed his own plan against spin and had coaching staff feed the relevant preparation. Khawaja played off the back foot to watch the ball off the pitch. Alex Carey swept everything. Steve Smith did the opposite, routinely using a straight bat and small footwork adjustments. Labuschagne swept on length in front of square or made room to play off his stumps. Cameron Green used his huge reach to come down the pitch and eliminate turn. Aside from Travis Head, there was a clarity of approach. Australia notched up 321 on a tricky pitch in the first Test and 364 in the second.

Where it fell apart was when Australia got flustered. That 364 was short on a good batting surface, where a start of 238 for 3 was followed by seven wickets for 126. Carey did a job, but there was no lower-order support for Smith on 145 not out. The contrast was clear with Dinesh Chandimal, who added 145 with Sri Lanka’s last four wickets, calmly collecting a century before blasting off. No Sri Lankan had ever made a double ton against Australia before – Chandimal is now the first.

He took the lead to 190, and consigned Australia to fielding across eight different sessions. The flustering was evident there too, as they used up all three umpire reviews on speculative decisions before the fifth wicket had fallen, then watched Chandimal edge a catch behind that was not given out.

By the time he was done the pitch was taking turn and the tourists were exhausted, in no state to play with their earlier sharpness. Old habits crept back. Khawaja prodded forward from the crease and edged to short leg. Warner tried to sweep when it doesn’t suit him. Labuschagne got the length wrong, playing his straight sweep as it crept under the bat. Smith simply refused to believe that he had played back and missed a ball hitting him in front of middle stump. Green overbalanced out of his crease. Head was as dire against spin as ever, bowled past his outside edge for the second time in the match. The tailenders could not read Maheesh Theekshana’s carrom ball. That was that, all out for 151.

From the moment that protesters began marching past the ground on the second day, Sri Lanka’s players took control of the Test and never let go. In its context it must go down as one of the great comebacks. Jayasuriya played the perfect two-hander in Asian conditions, working away in the first innings to prise out 6 for 118, striking in the second to grab 6 for 59. Only Herath in 2016 has taken more for Sri Lanka in a match against Australia. Just after that tour in 2016 was the last time Australia suffered an innings defeat. One team this week is looking to the future. The other, at least for a couple of days, slipped back into the past.

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