When Lanka set out on their three match Test tour of Australia this summer I anticipated losses at Hobart and Melbourne; but had great hopes for the Test match at the SCG because the surface could be conducive to spin. With this end in view and in order to strengthen the batting line-up I would have preferred to see Jeewan Mendis in the original squad instead of one of the medium-pacers. There was, of course, reason behind this decision on the part of the Selection Committee[i] in opting for five medium-pace bowlers, namely, Kulasekera, Welagedera, Eranga, Pradeep, Prasad. Pacemen are liable to breakdown, so it was good to have cover.
As it is, once Welagedera and Eranga were out of the equation the tour selectors asked for Mendis (already in Australia for the BBL) as one replacement before the SCG Test match; but the Selectors chose to send Lakmal as back-up bowler (while Thirimanne replaced Sangakkara). The tour selectors then compounded that blunder[ii] by choosing three medium-pacers for the match and leaving out off-spinner Suraj Randiv.[iii]
I was stupefied. Yes, Dilshan can bowl off-spin; but in my thinking THEN on 3 Janaury 2013 three spinners would be handy. In fact, if Mendis had been in the squad I would have had only one medium-pace bowler in the team.[iv] In my reasoning an average Sri Lankan spin-bowler would normally present a few more problems for Aussie batsmen than an average medium-pace bowler. This would be doubly true on the SCG pitch.
Bolstering my reasoning was the strengthening of the batting line-up in the process – a conclusion subsequently underlined by the appalling lack of determination and basic skills at the crease displayed by Lakmal and Pradeep (and, surprisingly, by Prasad whose shot selection suggested that he had clay between his ears). Consider what this batting line-up could have mustered for Lanka at the SCG: Karunaratne, Dilshan, Jayawardene, Thirimanne, Samaraweera, Mathews, Chandimal, Mendis, Randiv, Herath, Pradeep.
There is no reason why a spin-bowler cannot use the new ball. Dilshan, Herath or Randiv could have opened the attack with Herath bowling mostly dart arm balls towards the slips from round the wicket at the leftie-openers; and Dilshan doing the opposite by targeting the off stump with in-dippers from round the wicket.
In this argument, then, it was a selection blunder, in circumstances already complicated by injuries to Sangakkara, Kulasekera, and Eranga, that blew Sri Lanka’s best chance of a historic Test victory.
A word of caution here: triumph in cricket, as in political or military contests, is rarely due to one factor. Multiple causes determine outcomes in virtually all historical events of consequence. So, other factors influenced the outcome, among them being the steadiness of batting and bowling displayed by the Australians.
Three other errors of judgment nevertheless had a critical bearing on the final result. Firstly, Aleem Dar’s negation of an lbw appeal by Herath against Michael Clarke when he faced his first ball in innings one, compounded by Mahela’s failure to use the DRS on this occasion, probably made a big difference to the Australian total (though IFs are always attached to such reasoning).
Secondly, the SL think tank seems to have decided that Nathan Lyon should be attacked by lofted strokes. Samaraweera perished by venturing on this policy rather too early in his innings. But Matthews showed this hand by doing so successfully straight away. However, the Samaraweera dismissal had already made fatal inroads into the batting order.
And, THEN, a gross mistake on Mahela’s part in not responding to a Matthews’ call for a run resulted in the latter’s demise. There was run there and Mahela’s failure was a cardinal mistake. Run-outs – whether originating from batsmen mistakes or brilliant fielding (both in this instance) – often send chills down a batting sides’ spine and boost the fielding XI no end. Immediately after Matthews was run-out I told my wife that another wicket would fall. Sure enough Mahela fell. He had been visibly distressed by the run-out, so this batting error was no surprise.
At that point Sri Lanka’s goose was more or less cooked. Only brave batting from Chandimal aided to some extent by the comical tail on the one hand, and, then, determined bowling by Dilshan, Herath and Lakmal, aided by Mahela’s skill as captain, prolonged the outcome and showed the world that Sri Lankans could fight.
BUT, note the bowling statistics in the final Australian innings: Dilshan 18 overs at 3.16, Herath16.5 at 2.89, Lakmal 6 at 3.00, Pradeep 2 at 7.00. Prasad was a no show — wise that; and Pradeep went for 14 runs plus 4 leg byes in his two overs giving away all of 18 runs in a tight situation and serving up a contrast with the economy rates of the other three.
Oh for Randiv!
[i] Contrary to the ill-informed misinformation peddled by the TV commentators in Australia, The Sports Minister and politicians do NOT select the teams. The list is sent to the Minister for approval, a formal rubber-stamp job. With the possible exception of Jayasuriya’s selection for the last tour of England –itself a swan-song gift which could also have been advocated by powerful figures in cricket circles — I do not know of any instances of political choices being foisted on the Selectors. I would welcome chapter and verse in correction If I am mistaken
[ii] As events turned out Lakmal revealed that he was a better bowler than Pradeep and Prasad so that the initial selections have now been called into question.
[iii] In my evaluation Sachitra Senanayake is on par with Randiv as an off-spin bowler; but the present selection committee have clearly opted for Randiv and given him a continuous run. Both Randiv and Senanayake are good fielders. In my view Senanayake is a better batsman at the tail-end of ODI games as a stroke-maker and for this reason I would have included him in the ODI XV ahead of either Ajantha Mendis or Dananjaya.
[iv] I had not seen enough of the fast bowlers to decide between those left after Eranga injured himself.