Daniel Brettig, in ESPNcricinfo, 23 July 2016,
Either side of the disastrous Australian tour of India in 2013, much comment passed within and outside the team about the lack of experience contained in the first touring squad chosen after the retirements of Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey.
Among the points raised by certain Cricket Australia figures by way of a response was to say, “A lot of these guys have experience in India, they play in the IPL.” This was a little bit like saying that a belief in Father Christmas equates to a working knowledge of the North Pole: some vague geographical crossover but little else.
Similarly, Australia’s forthcoming Test series in Sri Lanka has been knitted into a wider story about Project Asia, and the need to adapt to subcontinental conditions in order to succeed here. While it is undoubtedly true that Australia must lift in this part of the world, and that Sri Lanka is a part of the region, a closer reading illustrates that it is too simplistic to suggest the right formula here will work in other parts of Asia.
Even a cursory glimpse at Australia’s record when travelling to face their three major subcontinental opponents bears this out in the most stark of terms. Since 1971 they have won only once – in 2004 – away to India, and only twice away to Pakistan – in 1998 and 2002 – since 1960. Yet over 13 Tests across five tours of Sri Lanka, the hosts have been victorious in just a solitary match, against Australia’s six victories. That win came after the Australians were left two players short via the horrible collision between Steve Waugh and Jason Gillespie on day two of the 1999 Kandy Test. Rain then curtailed matches two and three, gifting the series to Sri Lanka.
It must be said that Australia have not always won their matches in Sri Lanka by vast margins, and, notably in Colombo in 1992 and Kandy in 2004, recovered narrow victories from most unlikely positions early in the game. There is also the fact that numerous Australians have produced something close to career peaks on these tours, in ways many of the same players did not manage elsewhere.
Shane Warne was seldom better with the ball than on his return from a drugs ban in 2004, Damien Martyn and Darren Lehmann likewise with the bat. In 2011, Hussey scooped a hat-trick of match awards to help deliver a win for Michael Clarke in his first series as Test captain.
But there are undoubtedly other factors at play on Australian visits to Sri Lanka that go beyond the vagaries of individual matches or combatants. These range from matters of climate, mentality and history to the demography of the island nation. All have raised their heads repeatedly, and Steven Smith’s men may well capitalise on them once more this time around.
Sri Lanka’s climate and pitches offer just enough assistance to seamers
Where India and Pakistan have broken the spirits of numerous Australian pacemen, Sri Lanka’s tropical climes have always provided that little bit of extra encouragement, whether through the air or off the pitch. Warne’s path was often smoothed in 2004 by early wickets to Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz. In 2011, a deck in Galle prepared ostensibly for spinners was used grandly by Shane Watson and Ryan Harris, who made use of reverse swing and up-and-down bounce respectively.
Perhaps the most telling examples actually come from when the tables are turned: Tom Moody never played another Test after being unable to handle the moving ball as an opener in 1992; on the same tour Mark Waugh made four consecutive ducks, earning the sobriquet “Audi”. Sri Lanka’s lone victory was set up not by Muttiah Muralitharan but Chaminda Vaas and Nuwan Zoysa, who dropped the tourists to 5 for 40 on the first morning before any wickets fell to spin.
Australia seldom lose the patience battle with bat or ball
It isn’t hard to recall subcontinental days when Australia’s bowlers have been bereft of ideas on how to claim a wicket: think Dravid and Laxman in Kolkata in 2001, Sachin Tendulkar in 1998 or 2010, or Shikhar Dhawan’s assault three years ago. But those junctures never seem to come in Sri Lanka, with a wicket seldom more than an hour or two away. That is borne out by the indifferent records of Aravinda de Silva, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara against Australia. In 2011, Sangakkara was out to Nathan Lyon’s first ball in Tests and also managed to be winkled out by Hussey. Equally, Sri Lanka’s spinners have been unable to swarm over Australia in the manner of Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, R Ashwin or Yasir Shah. Muralitharan took plenty of wickets in 2004, but was outpointed by the combination of Lehmann’s daring and Martyn’s doggedness. There is something mental to all this, doubtless linked to…
A history of Australian success plays on the minds of both sides
Repeatedly, it has appeared that when matches get tight, Australian self-belief overwhelms Sri Lankan combinations briefly but critically afflicted by doubt. Arguably this began in Colombo in 1992, when a mighty first innings should have paved the way for a home win. But Allan Border’s team scrounged a narrow lead, before Sri Lanka’s effort to rush to the target was undermined when a skittish skied one from de Silva was held by a running Border. From there Greg Matthews and a young Warne engineered a great escape, and Australia’s first win anywhere in Asia for 22 years.
Lehmann has spoken on this trip about the need to get a first-innings lead before the pitches deteriorate, but he can also recall winning 3-0 in 2004 after falling behind on first innings in all three Tests. Even the solitary Sri Lankan win only arrived after their shaky chase of 95 was helped by some exceedingly conservative umpiring to deny Colin Miller a clear caught-and-bowled and then a very adjacent lbw appeal.
Sri Lankan Test crowds are small
A great many spectators filed into the Asgiriya Stadium in Kandy as that victory in 1999 crept closer, but most of the time the atmosphere at Sri Lankan Tests is sorely lacking the sort of noise-inducing claustrophobia that can amount to a major competitive advantage. An Australian player once noted the contrast between sparsely attended South African grounds, where Australia have done well, and heaving English venues, where they have not. The same is true of Sri Lanka, where batsmen can hear each other call, bowlers can hear themselves think, and captains can plan in relative peace. Small wonder Sri Lanka Cricket are committed to raising their Test series attendances above 100,000 by paying attention to venue choices and ground facilities; touring teams eager to silence crowds in India rarely need to worry about doing so here.
This time around, Australia should be heavily favoured to win the series anyway as the world’s No. 1-ranked side. Sri Lanka have some sizeable holes in their line-up, given a present dearth of fit pace bowlers and the abiding problem of how to cover for the loss of Mahela Jayawardene and Sangakkara, who are now ubiquitous on billboards rather than scoreboards in this part of the world.
But just as Sri Lanka must look hard into the reasons why they so rarely taste Test success against Australia, so the visitors must weigh up what works here and nowhere else. All victories away from home have meaning, but a win for Smith’s men in Sri Lanka may mean less in terms of next year’s trip to India than some might think.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig