After an unexpected 3-0 series defeat on the previous tour of Sri Lanka six years ago, Australia expects to bat much better on spin-friendly pitches in the two-Test series in Galle starting on Wednesday.
Australia has found playing on Asia's turning pitches hard in the past but has done well recently, beating Pakistan 1-0 in a three-match series in March. Of more significance, Sri Lanka's spin attack doesn't have the experience and variety of the retired Rangana Herath and Dilruwan Perera, whose combined 43 wickets caused Australia's downfall in the 2016 series.
“In a lot of ways it will be quite different,” Australia captain Pat Cummins said in comparing the conditions in Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
“(Pakistan) was subcontinent but it wasn’t big turn. There was so much we did well over there. We controlled the tempo of the match. In some ways it will be a bigger challenge (in Sri Lanka) when it quickens up faster than Pakistan.”
Sri Lanka can field left-arm spinners Lasith Embuldeniya and Praveen Jayawickrama and offspinner Ramesh Mendis. Also in the squad is legspinner Jeffrey Vandersay, uncapped in Tests.
The first three have played only 27 Tests combined, but Sri Lanka will be encouraged by how well the spinners performed in the one-day international series it won 3-2.
Sri Lanka's seam bowlers have been better than the spinners: Asitha Fernando and Kasun Rajitha carried the team to victory in the recent two-Test series in Bangladesh.
Australia has its own strong spin attack, led by offspinner Nathon Lyon, who has 427 wickets in 108 matches. Cummins said Lyon will like be partnered by legspinner Mitchell Swepson, who had two wickets across the two Pakistan Tests.
Sri Lanka captain Dimuth Karunaratne noted Australia's improved performances in Asia and said his team has plans to contain the tourists.
“In 2016, we won with experienced spinners ... but this time we have three new spinners," Karunaratne said. "However, we have an idea as to how the wicket behaves, and if we do the basics right we have a chance of winning this series.”
It will be some feat. Sri Lanka has only four wins in 31 Tests against Australia, which has won 19.
Victory would be a welcome distraction for people suffering in Sri Lanka's worst economic crisis in recent memory, with acute shortages of fuel, cooking gas, medicines and many other essentials.
Right outside Galle Stadium are long lines of cylinders left by people waiting for a station to be resupplied with cooking gas. There are few vehicles moving in and out of the usually bustling 17th century Dutch-built Galle Fort next to the cricket ground because the government has issued fuel to vehicles involved only in essential services.
Cummins said: “I was on a call yesterday and was chatting to some young girl cricketers. They’re down to one meal a day and are going to school a couple of days a week because the teachers can’t get to school.
“They’re from a fishing village and a lot of them can’t go out to fish because they have no petrol. We are certainly seeing the effects. Even in the buses we are seeing the queues kilometres long around petrol stations. That has really hit home for us.”
The series for the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy is the first since Australia great Shane Warne died in March. Galle has a special connection to Warne, who took his 500th Test wicket in the stadium and helped rebuild it after it was destroyed by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
“The two highest wicket-takers ever in Test cricket (Warne and Sri Lanka's Muttiah Muralitharan)," Cummins said. "Seeing some legends of the game on the trophy always hits home that what we are doing is pretty special. We are privileged. We're part of a long past and we’re very grateful.”
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