Statistically, Suranga Lakmal is Sri Lanka's second-most successful seamer in Test cricket, behind the evergreen Chaminda Vaas. Lakmal (31) with 127 Test wickets has got a long way to go to even get closer to Vaas, who finished with 355 scalps. For Sri Lankan cricket, however, Lakmal is much more than their lead fast bowler.
Fast bowlers aren't often favoured to lead teams, but Lakmal has been chosen to captain domestic teams regularly due to his excellent leadership skills. Tamil Union had spent several decades without winning the Premier League titles and the drought ended in 2016 when Lakmal captained them to the title after 65 years. A club that had produced the likes of Mahadevan Sathasivam, Muttiah Muralitharan and many other stalwarts, won the domestic title two years ago after the 1950-1951 season.
This season he captained Galle in the Inter-Provincial First Class tournament and guided them to the title leading them from the front with some consistent performances.
In the absence of Test captain Dinesh Chandimal, who was serving a suspension after being found guilty of ball tampering, Lakmal also stepped in to lead the country and tasted immediate success as Sri Lanka became the first Asian nation to win a Test match in Barbados in June this year.
With Chandimal unavailable for the Test series against South Africa, he led Sri Lanka to a 2-0 series win over the Proteas at home.
Criticism from Ashantha De Mel, the new Chairman of Selectors that Lakmal as captain depended too much on Head Coach Chandika Hathurusignha's input regularly turning towards the dressing room while on the field, was harsh. Lakmal, who was deputy to Test skipper Chandimal, was replaced as the vice-captain by opening batsman Dimuth Karunaratne for the New Zealand series. De Mel had not taken into account Lakmal's excellent captaincy record in domestic cricket.
For the tour of New Zealand, Sri Lanka picked five seamers. Apart from Lakmal, Dushmantha Chameera, Nuwan Pradeep, Lahiru Kumara and Kasun Rajitha were the others chosen for the tour. When it comes to speed, all other four bowlers could bowl at a lively pace. Lakmal was the slowest out of the lot. But his strengths are bowling tidy lines and lengths and he put that on show yet again, against New Zealand, on the Boxing Day at Hagley Oval.
On the dust bowls of Sri Lanka where he hardly gets any assistance, Lakmal is preferred as the team's lone seamer as the hosts rely heavily on an overdose of spin. Lakmal's role at home is to bowl lengthy spells. His role is to contain while spinners have a field day from the other end.
In Christchurch, he was given a green top and there was a heavy cloud cover. Lakmal was on song after Sri Lanka won the toss and put the Kiwis in. He bowled unchanged for 16 overs in the first session in which he produced four wickets to reduce the hosts to 36 for four.
Later in the day, Lakmal removed Neil Wagner to end with career-best figures of five for 54 as New Zealand were shot out for 178 runs in 50 overs.
His morning spell was a masterclass. The 31-year-old swung the ball both ways and accounted for Jeet Raval, Tom Latham, Kane Williamson and Henry Nicholls with the new ball. He was well backed up by Lahiru Kumara, who finished with three wickets.
The tremendous effort gave Sri Lanka a glimmer of hope of their first Test win in New Zealand in 12 years but their batting was below par. Lakmal will have another crack at the New Zealanders in the second innings and watching him operate is a lesson for young fast bowlers. Despite lack of pace, if your skills are good enough the best of batsmen in Test cricket could still be tested.
He has also earned the praise of the coaching staff for looking after himself well. All fast bowlers currently touring New Zealand are making a comeback after long lay-offs due to injuries. There have been no such problems for Lakmal as he has been available all year. This year, Sri Lanka have played 12 Tests and Lakmal has featured in all of them.
Lakmal is a reward of Sri Lanka Cricket's policy of investing in outstation cricket. He is the first Test cricketer from Hambantota. From humble beginnings, he has gone onto lead his country and has emerged as the country's premier fast bowler.
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