Was it all that long ago that this Sri Lankan team whitewashed a powerful Australia 3-0? It seems like that but in reality it was just last year, during July-August, that they won the three Tests by impressive margins — 106, 229 and 163 runs. In fact, the wins were so emphatic that it seemed a series between unequals.
This very same Rangana Herath with 28 wickets and the very same Dhananjaya De Silva with 325 runs were the champions of that series win.
Cut to the present. This same Sri Lankan team seems to be in its death throes in the series against India.
Lest anyone thought that the Galle debacle was an aberration, the opening day’s showing in the second Test should have dashed any such thoughts. Sri Lanka looked pathetic as the day wore on that it is quite unbelievable that this same team could so convincingly crush the formidable Australians as recently as last year.
On Thursday, Sri Lanka looked an increasingly frayed side. This time around it was not opener Shikhar Dhawan or even skipper Virat Kohli that put them under the pump early on, but KL Rahul, who was returning to Test cricket after a long injury and illness-induced break. His comeback knock blunted their opening salvo quite comfortably.
Yet Lanka remained competitive despite that ragged first session of the Test costing 101 runs with just one wicket to show for it. Fortune smiled on them when the well-set Rahul ran himself out and Kohli guided an attempted late cut into the lone slip fielder’s hands. These two wickets early in the second session gave them hope.
But after Cheteshwar Pujara got his eye in and Ajinkya Rahane played himself in, it was a veritable leather hunt. They conceded over hundred runs in each of the three sessions and by the end of the day India were placed at a handsome 344 for three. Considering that in the first Test they gave away 399 runs on the opening day, Lanka would do well to delve on their shabby bowling performance in first essays.
Sri Lanka’s woes are due to the fact that theirs is a purely one-dimensional team. Their strategy from team selection to execution is based on the premise that they would bowl last on a crumbling pitch. Their bowlers are very good in shutting out rivals on fourth innings pitches. This game plan, however, is so flimsy that it falls apart if they do not win the toss and bat first.
Unfortunately for them, Virat Kohli’s luck with the toss has been better and this has taken the wind out of their sails.
To put this toss and batting first manoeuvre in perspective, Sri Lanka won every one of the three tosses against Australia. The result was that their bowlers ran circles around the Aussies in the fourth innings. Left-arm spinner Herath and off-spinner Dilruwan Perera were terrific in execution and scalped wickets galore. Australia had no one who either counter or pay back in the same coin and simply fell away.
The point is: Are these Sri Lankans a force to reckon with only if they bowl last? They picked just one fast bowler, Nuwan Pradeep, for the second Test. Thus on the first session of the first day, and on a fresh pitch, when batsmen ought to be on tenterhooks about taking on the new ball, their attack looked like a welcoming party at a feast.
As is to be expected, the spinners could not get purchase from a first day pitch. They were driven, cut, pulled and swept consistently. To make matters worse, the lone paceman Pradeep pulled out after bowling just four balls with the second new ball and the over had to be completed by Perera.
It is difficult to recall a more lopsided opening day’s play in two consecutive Tests in recent times.
The Lankan bowlers, Herath and Perera in particular, who were major threats on home soil looked pathetically innocuous on first day pitches. That being the case, Sri Lanka ought to have had an alternate plan in case they lost the toss. After all the probability of winning the toss is a mere 50 percent.
Thanks to Lanka’s ineptitude India were allowed to lay a solid foundation on the opening day itself. The fact that the bowlers could neither grab wickets nor contain the scoring rate would have been depressing for home team supporters. Their cup of woes would copiously overflow if it turns out to be downhill from here on.