Don’t Write-Off New Look Sri Lankans
Sri Lanka have grown accustomed to transcending adversity on their rise into the elite of international cricket.
Despite being former World Cup winners, and a team which has produced a string of world-class performers and record-breakers, they remain one of the global contenders who have to keep battling against the efforts of their rivals to keep them in the place.
Even when they had Muttiah Muralitharan, a man with a prodigious ability to penetrate the toughest of adversaries, there were whispers about his action.
And, even despite regularly beating the likes of England at Test and ODI effort, they have been slotted into the schedules wherever it suits the so-called superpowers with two matches here, three games there, prior to the arrival of India or, this summer, Pakistan.
In which light, it would be premature to dismiss the prospects of the new-look touring party who will meet England at Headingley next week.
Yes, the Sri Lankans struggled badly in their tour opener against Essex, where they were lacklustre with bat and ball and were ultimately spared potential embarrassment when the heavens opened to wreck the final day’s action.
Yes, they no longer have access to Kumar Sangakkara – who is still piling up the runs on the English county circuit – and Mahela Jayawardene, a brace of the greatest batsmen in the sport’s history.
But there is a sense of confidence in the visiting camp that once the preliminaries are over and the real action commences on May 19, there will be no easy pickings for an English side replete with confidence and stars – such as Joe Root – in the form of their lives.
Some of the upbeat words expressed by coach Graham Ford might end up being overly optimistic, but he is correct to accentuate the precocious talent at his disposal.
Because let’s not forget that Sri Lanka arrived with similar reservations two years ago and finished by achieving an against-the-odds series victory.
As Ford said: “We are going to require more time to adjust to the conditions. One or two of the batters showed some decent form [against Essex] and, pleasingly, there weren’t many soft dismissals, but we are going to have to work on how we play the swinging ball.
“The bowlers needed a bit of a gallop but I felt that, while we didn’t start great with the ball, there were patches yesterday where we bowled a hell of a lot better.”
Ford, who has coaching experience at Surrey, isn’t disguising the fact that several selections for the first Test remain unresolved.
Veteran pace bowler Dhamikka Prasad is fighting injury and his absence would be a blow.
Then there’s the fact the two men competing for the No 3 slot – Kusal Mendis and Niroshan Dickwella – are among the few tourists to look prepared for the job of combating James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Co in English conditions.
Lahiru Thirimanne, who could also be in contention for the role, is recovering from a hamstring injury and could play the second warm-up game at Leicester.
It would be difficult for anybody to glide smoothly into a bright new future without encountering a few travails after losing a luminary of Sangakkara’s unalloyed brilliance.
So the chances are that Ford’s personnel will go into the Test fray undercooked and with several of their key participants scratching around for form and rhythm.
As he told the media: “It’s too early to be clear on the side. We have a bit of cricket to play, so we shall make decisions on things like who will keep wicket [Dinesh Chandimal and Dickwella both carried out the role against Essex] closer to the time.
“Nothing is decided as yet. But that tends to happen at this time of year.”
The contest at Grace Road, which begins on Friday, poses myriad issues for Sri Lanka, but part of that dilemma lies in their embarrassment of riches.
Rangana Herath, Dushmantha Chameera and Suranga Lakmal are also expected to play and Angelo Mathews is a tough-as-teak captain with lashings of national and personal pride.
So there’s no shortage of bowling options, which led the former batsman extraordinaire, Sanath Jayasuriya, to claim this week that his compatriots had the strongest Test attack in the world.
Perhaps these words might be vindicated, but the same can’t be said of the batsmen.
Ford admitted as much in declaring: “We have a few questions we need to answer, and at Leicester it’s important the batsmen show some real form. There’s nothing like time in the middle. We want big scores and we want them at the crease for long periods of time.”
It’s the usual problem for a touring side to Blighty at this stage of the year. If it’s not raining, there’s always rustiness and a short build-up to the international lift-off.
But the Sri Lankans are accustomed to being in this situation and rising above it.
Don’t bet against them responding to the challenge again.