Pallekele still in Infancy as a Test Venue in Lanka

Aubrey Kuruppu, in Sunday Times, 13 August 2017, where the title Pallekele – Still cutting its teeth as a Test venue””

It may surprise one and all to know that Pallekele has staged a mere five Test matches in a span of nearly seven years. There were a few two test tours, during which the Kandy venue invariably lost out. Spin-friendly Galle was always a first choice as the hosts liked to get off the blocks, fire the first salvo, in a truncated series. Quaint, old fashioned Asgiriya had her charms. Accessibility was a factor in her favour. Yet the draw backs outweighed the advantages. The media box was cramped and a bit of a shambles. Modernised Pallekele has much more space, and the pavilion and the grass-banks evoke memories of South African Grounds. The Hantane and Hunnasgiriya mountain-ranges offer a beautiful backdrop to the action.

The first three tests at the new venue, which was christened on December 1, 2010, all ended in draws. The Pakistanis recorded the first win in a test at the eighth Test venue in Sri Lanka with a spanking, come-from-behind seven wicket victory in July 2015.

Learning from that experience, Sri Lanka, too, came from behind to upset champion Australia just a year later. This undoubtedly is one of the country’s greatest moments in International cricket during her twenty five years at the top level. A touch of romance was lent by a prodigious talent, a youngster barely twenty years of age, who lit up the ground with an effervescent 176. This remains the highest individual test score made at Pallekele.

In days of yore, Asgiriya was the Manchester of Sri Lankan cricket. The rain seemed to follow every team that visited the Hill Capital. Thankfully, Pallekele has been spared that dubious reputation, although the inaugural test at the new venue (from December 1-5, 2010) saw a mere 103.3 overs being bowled.

The West Indians faced 41 overs on day one, 40 on day two and 22.3 overs on day four. Darren Bravo (68), Devon Smith (55), Shivnarine Chanderpaul (54) and Brendon Nash (67) distinguished themselves. Rangana Herath worked hard to finish with (4-54) in a total of 303-8.

Less than a year later, the Aussies were stalled by some determined batting by Sri Lanka’s top-order, second time round. Bowled out for 174 in the first turn (Kumar Sangakkara 48, Angelo Mathews 58), the home team put on “Their Sunday Best” as they reached 317-6 (Tharanga Paranavithana 55, Sangakkara 69, Mahela Jayawardena 51, Thilan Samaraweera 43).

Australia’s 411-7 was largely the outcome of hundreds by left handers Shaun Marsh (141) and Mike Hussey (142). Suraj Randiv bowled marathon spells to end with figures of 43-7-103-3. Ryan Harris was the dominant force in the Aussie attack with figures of 3-38 and 3-54.

The test against Pakistan, Pallekele’s third, (played from July 8-12, 2012) see-sawed a bit. Asad Shafiq’s 75 was the back-bone of Pakistan’s modest 226 – A forgotten man (after the Sarfaraz ‘drop’). Thisara Perera showed his paces with 4-63 and 75. Paranavithana and Samaraweera also made seventies as the home team took a commanding lead of 111. Junaid Khan (5-70) and Ajmal (match bag of 6-116) were Pakistan’s best bowlers.

Centuries by Azhar Ali (136), Asad Shafiq (100 n.o.) and a 52 from Haferz helped Pakistan to a massive, face-saving 380-8. (Rangana 4-99, Dilhara Fernando 3-74). Given a target of 270 in 71 overs. The Sri Lankans opted for a draw finishing on 195-4 (Sangakkara 74 n.o., Dinesh Chandimal 65).

July 2015 and history was almost turned on it’s head as the Pakistani’s (Sri Lanka’s then, popular visitors) chased down a target of 377 and won by seven wickets. Shan Massoud 125, Younis 171 n.o. and Misbah-ul-Haq 59 not out, scripted a bit of history as their team reached 382-3. All this, on a wicket that the local team felt was going to be difficult. Possibly, they were inadvertently helped by the local selectors who made Herath sit out the game and instead opted for a rookie Tharindu Kaushal.

Two of the current players held centre-stage for awhile. Dimuth Karunaratne 130 and Mathews 122 excelled, while current skipper Chandimal scored 67. Dhammika Prasad, Nuwan Pradeep and Kaushal, who took three wickets apiece in the first innings, won’t be around for this test starting on the 12th.

The dates (July 26-30, 2016) should be written in letters of gold. Dismissed for just 117 by Australia’s pace spin combination of Starc, Hazelwood, Lyon and O’Keefe, Sri Lanka hit back the rough debutant Lakshan Sandakan and reliable Herath who had 4-58 and 4-49 respectively.

The Aussies were kept down to a manageable lead of 86. The stage was set for Kusal Mendis’ maiden ton. The Aussies, did not bargain that a tiny whipper-snapper would take the game away from them so comprehensively. Chandimal and Dananjaya de Silva lent their shoulders to the wheel with knocks of 42 and 36.

The target was not mountainous. The Sri Lankans had made 353 and set the visitors a 268 run target. Smith made 55, while Marsh 25 and Burns 29 lent support. However, Herath had amazing figures of 33.3-16-54-5 and, together with Sandakan (3-49) bowled out the Aussies for 161. This 107 run win against Australia was only the second for Sri Lanka in 27 matches. Asgiriya 1999 was the first.

The situation this time round is entirely different. Two down with one to play, Sri Lanka is up against the number one team, currently on a roll. Bruised and battered by all and sundry, Chandimal’s team can take heart from the heroics of Karunaratne and Mendis at the SSC.

The words of Josiah Gilbert Holland are relevant at this point “God give us men! A time like this demands, strong minds, great hearts, true faith and ready hands”. The rest of this immortal quotation is relevant to politicians and social-climbers.

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