3:00 AM ETAndrew Fidel Fernando in ColomboFacebookTwitterFacebook MessengerPinterestEmailprint
In his fifth Test in charge, Suranga Lakmal has perhaps his greatest leadership challenge yet. When he led Sri Lanka to wins against West Indies and South Africa, he largely had his first-choice attack at his back, and was up against opposition that appeared seriously vulnerable.
England, though, are a much sterner test. They know how to bat in spinning conditions – much better than Sri Lanka had imagined. They also have batting all the way down to No. 8, which presents a daunting challenge for any fielding captain.
“The England batsmen are playing really well at the moment,” Lakmal said. “If you look at the world, the next best players of spin after India are England. Their batsmen don’t let our spinners bowl in one spot to them. They sweep in both directions – the normal sweep and the reverse. They do that from the first ball of their innings. That’s something we should learn from when we play in Sri Lanka in the future as well.”
Among the weaknesses Lakmal must address in this Test is Sri Lanka’s propensity to give runs away to England’s lower order. The hosts had had the opposition at 103 for 5 and 134 for 5 in each of the first innings of the last two Tests, before going on to concede 342 and 285 (with five penalty runs added to the latter). In Pallekele, England’s last-wicket partnerships were worth 60 and 41.
Sri Lanka’s best chance of curbing this trend, Lakmal hinted, was for him to bowl himself more often at England’s lower order batsmen.
“Their top five are always trying to score runs quickly. After that they start to understand the pitch and start playing the spinners better. They also have a good batting line-up. But we can’t be making spinning pitches and letting their tail get runs. We have a plan to stop them. We gave the spinners a lot of overs at the tail in the previous games because the pitch suited them. But as a seam bowler, maybe there will be a change in this match.”
Not making Lakmal’s job any easier are the non-performing members of the batting line up. Kaushal Silva has made four modest scores, and is likely to be replaced by Danushka Gunathilaka. Niroshan Dickwella has been skating by on shaky batting performances himself, but survives in the XI because of his wicketkeeping. Kusal Mendis has also been poor in the last five Tests, now having gone 10 innings without a fifty. As he is thought of as the man around whom Sri Lanka’s future top order may pivot, though, the selectors and captain appear happy to keep him around.
“In the last little while when we’ve won Tests, he’s a player who has contributed to those performances in a big way,” Lakmal said. “As a captain, Kusal is definitely in my team. Dinesh Chandimal is out, and a lot of the batsmen don’t have a lot of experience. He was among the runs until recently – it’s only in the last six or seven games that he’s failed.
“He’ll play in this game, because the next tours are important as well. We’re going to New Zealand soon. We can’t drop him for this match and bring him back for that game, because then he will fall even more mentally. What we’re looking to do is to try to carry the players who aren’t performing and try and get them into a better state. Mendis is a valuable player both now and into the future.”