Back in the groove

It’s been a gloriously pointless year for Sri Lankan Cricket. Coming off another harrowing Test series against Australia at the turn of the 2013 (although a drawn ODI series and winning the T20 put a gloss on that tour), then Bangladesh in February, a run-glut in Galle and sound thrashing at the Premadasa was to be the last red ball cricket Sri Lanka would play until they don the whites (creams?) again next week on their tour to the United Arab Emirates to take on a Pakistani side who have been locked in a grueling home and away tussle with South Africa, blooding some new talents along the way.

This Pakistan side will be vastly different to the one we faced last time out, which was back in 2012 in which Sri Lanka won the home 3-Test series 1-0. It was also the first Test match the team won since Muttiah Muralitharan retired. Incidentally, that series took the exact same format as the upcoming one will take. 2 T20 appetizers, the customary 5 bloated ODIs and Test cricket makes a blissful return with a 3-match series – although two of those are almost guaranteed to be a draw. Getting back on point, in the final Test of the last series at Pallekele, Pakistan included Taufeeq Umar and even Mohammed Sami and not to mention a less crocked Umar Gul. The one that played their last test against South Africa featured Zulfiqar Babar, Khurram Manzoor, Shan Masood and Mohammed Irfan whom I bet our batsmen cannot wait to face. Haris Sohail will be making a comeback for the T20s and there is also a debut to be handed to Sharjeel Khan.

As for Sri Lanka, Kithuruwan Vithanage and Seekuge Prasanna are back in the squad. Vithanage having not really had a chance to build upon a solid first outing versus Bangladesh and Prasanna having last represented SL in the 2012 Asia Cup in Bangladesh Pakistan but has made some decent outings for the ‘A’-side and is probably the best spinner on the island behind Herath. Having said that, the continuing omission of 26 year-old Malinda Pushpakumara from any sort of international reckoning beyond the ‘A’-side is getting a bit odd for a slow-left armer who averages just over 20 in First-Class cricket. Ajantha Mendis is left out after his latest comeback, but the big name who will not be featuring in the limited overs series is Mahela Jayawardena who will stay behind to be there with Christine for the birth of their first-born child. Dimuth Karunaratne is once again in the limited overs squad and should open with Dilshan, despite two ineffectual matches against a depleted New Zealand attack on home soil. Many Sri Lankan fans will suggest Kusal Perera as the right man to open alongside, but his all or nothing batting style has predictably yielded mixed results. Karunaratne is the current Test opener and presumably being groomed to be the mainstay especially since Dilshan retired from the longest format. His Test performances to date have consisted mainly of a technical flaw on Australian pitches, but did compliment his first away tour with a gutsy 85 in the last Test at the SCG.

Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne will need to make the most of Mahela Jayawardena’s absence in the limited overs series. ©AFP

That match also saw Lahiru Thirimanne put forward his Test credentials with an excellent 91 in the first innings. He, incidentally would be my candidate for Dilshan’s opening slot. Sangakkara and Jayawardene apart, Thirimanne is the one other batsman who has shown an aptitude for the longer innings, and crucially is one of the best players of pace bowling and is well equipped for playing the new ball. I think it is a matter of time before he does get his chance at the top of the order, but I cannot say how long it will be. Perhaps it needs Karunaratne to fail or succeed before that happens. Or maybe even the new coach (whenever that gets sorted) could come in and see what the team has in Thirimanne, as opposed to letting him just languish down the order whilst we consistently struggle to make good starts to Test matches.

One of the biggest clouds hanging over SL going in to this tour is the soon-to-be vacant head-coach position. Graham Ford will be looking to sign off with a series win on a tour that Sri Lanka failed abysmally last time out. The question as to who will take the team to Bangladesh in February has been simmering away nicely, with some top names initially linked, only to drop out, suggesting that coaches around the world are getting wise to Sri Lankan Cricket’s administrative flaws. Two names that haven’t gone away are Mark Davis and Marvan Atapattu. They however seem to be not the ones that the committee tasked with appointed a new coach prefer to see take charge. Step forward (again) Paul Farbrace. The Yorkshire assistant coach has seen a Yorkshire team who were tipped for relegation from Division 1 of the County Championship contend for the title, and of course has worked with Sri Lanka before as Trevor Bayliss’ assistant. He enjoys the support of Sanath Jayasuriya in the boardroom, who championed Farbrace to the committee, even once he seemed to slip out of the running, and has reportedly changed the minds of said committee who were eyeing up a fairy-tale reappointment of Dav Whatmore. I would have liked to see the appointment of a Sri Lankan coach. It remains to be seen just how close Atapattu got to the job. His results as Sri Lanka batting coach have been mixed up to this point, which could be a reason as to why his name was not considered. Another candidate would have been Sinhalese Sports Club coach Naveed Nawaz who also coached the U-19s some years ago. As the coach of the most successful club in the country, surely he could have been in with a shout? As could Romesh Kaluwitharana. Focused on a career outside cricket, Kalu’s limited coaching experience includes the SL U-19s and Malaysia. It would have been a huge risk, but he would have commanded a lot of respect from the players nevertheless. His appointment would have required the kind of blue-sky thinking Sri Lankan Cricket has rarely exhibited…well..ever. In the end, though it looks like a Farbrace will get the gig, and that is a sound appointment by my book.

I can’t say that I expect this tour to be a complete success. Certainly the limited overs contests should be competitive but with out lack of Test cricket over 2013, an already battle-hardened Pakistan should get the job done over 3 Tests. We will get a better understanding of how the Test series will go once the ODIs are through. With a 2014/2015 packed with cricket including some tough Test series, this tour to the UAE could be a precursor to what lies ahead.

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