On August 24, 2015, Kumar Sangakkara, one of Sri Lanka’s modern-day greats, bid adieu to Test cricket, leaving a void that hasn’t yet been filled. By then, Mahela Jayawardene had already bowed out after a distinguished career, and it was up to the new guard, led by the likes of Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal to sustain the team’s success in all formats and build a legacy.
In addition to being cash-strapped, today Sri Lankan cricket finds itself struggling to find success. As it turned out, the retirements of Jayawardene and Sangakkara led to a period of slow decline catalysed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Frequent defeats and the occasional impasse between the cricket board and the players give the image of a crisis-ridden sport in a country as passionate about cricket as it has ever been.
But a closer look at the numbers suggests the stagnation is more recent, brought about by the absence of a world-class spin unit capable of dismantling the mightiest batting line-ups in the slow turners of Galle, Colombo and Pallekele.
In the six and a half years that Sri Lanka has played without Sangakkara and Jayawardene, it has won 22 matches, lost 25, and drawn 11 for a win-loss ratio of 0.880, better than its overall win-loss ratio of 0.840.
The success was largely due to dominance at home facilitated in no small part by Rangana Herath, the left-arm spinner, and Dilruwan Perera, the off-spinner. The two spinners backed up Karunaratne, Mathews and Chandimal to win Test matches. Away from home, in Test series against all nations barring Bangladesh, West Indies and Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka lost 14 and won just two matches out of 21.
The only anomaly in this period has been the victories in 2019 in South Africa. They were freak wins in challenging and unfamiliar conditions, against a team seemingly invincible at home (Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis were yet to quit Test cricket). The first Test was nearly lost; it took an innings of a lifetime by Kusal Perera to hand Sri Lanka a one-wicket win in Durban. Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, et al couldn’t dislodge the last pair even as they added 78 runs, Vishwa Fernando hanging on for 73 minutes.
And a batting collapse brought about by Suranga Lakmal and Akila Dananjaya in the second innings of the second Test put paid to South Africa’s hopes of drawing the series. It was Sri Lanka’s first Test series win in South Africa, less than two years after its 3-0 win in the UAE – a series dominated once again by Herath and Perera.
A more sober picture appears after that win in South Africa. Since March, 2020, the only wins have come against Bangladesh, New Zealand and West Indies, all at home. It was difficult off the field, too: there was a pay dispute between the players and the board, and more recently, the board got whiff of players wanting to quit international cricket to increase their chances of playing in T20 leagues, prompting urgent decrees on the matter.
In a period dominated by fast bowling, Sri Lanka’s fast bowlers haven’t joined the party: as pointed to by The Cricket Monthly , Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are the only teams whose bowlers average more than 30 in the last four years. Besides Suranga Lakmal, who retires from international cricket at the conclusion of the Test series in India, there hasn’t been a single fast bowler of note in the format in the recent past.
What could have given the team some hope in the Test series to begin on Friday was its burgeoning star in Wanindu Hasaranga, who shone through in 2021 and was purchased for INR 10.75 crore by Royal Challengers Bangalore in the recent IPL auction. His absence due to a COVID-19 infection means even the spin attack appears weak. To be sure, Mathews (now 34), Chandimal and Karunaratne can offer resistance with the bat, but their contributions aren’t likely to be enough.
Miracles a la Durban cannot be ruled out. But it appears that Sri Lanka’s struggles in Test cricket may go on for some time until a great player or two appears once again on the horizon.
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