Australia’s reinvigorated hopes of again emerging as a subcontinent slayer begin in earnest on Tuesday when Steve Smith’s men confront a rebuilding Sri Lanka in the island nation.
The Sri Lankans were winless in their recent tour of England but, despite slipping to seventh on the International Cricket Council’s rankings, are expected to be a more potent unit in the three Tests in Kandy, Galle and Colombo.
Only three members of the touring side – Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon and current back-up batsman Shaun Marsh – have featured in a Test in Sri Lanka, that being the 1-0 series win of 2011, so Smith’s side remains somewhat of an unknown quantity in steamy conditions set to favour spin and reverse swing and demand patience.
As coach Darren Lehmann told Fairfax Media before leaving earlier this month, the tourists want this series to be the start of a subcontinent renaissance, having dropped four of their past five series.
This time, however, there has been an overhaul in terms of preparation, with the squad arriving a fortnight before the opening Test. Four players also spent an earlier week adjusting to similar conditions in India. The Test-only players, such as batsmen Joe Burns and Adam Voges, also spent hours honing their craft on the specialist subcontinental pitches at the national training academy in Brisbane.
There has almost been a military-type precision to detail, exemplified again when journalists at the official warm-up clash against a Sri Lankan Board XI, in which the tourists won by an innings and 162 runs, reported that Smith headed straight to the nets after his cheap dismissal. That sets a tone for teammates to follow, as the Australians look to strengthen their grasp on the ICC’s number-one ranking.
They are in a period of rebuilding, having had master batsmen – and household names – Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene retire over the past two years. They still also miss Thilan Samaraweera, a veteran of 81 Tests with 5,462 runs at 46.92, who quit in 2013. Now living in Melbourne, he was used as a batting consultant for the tourists before they left home shores.
Sri Lanka has only the one batsman ranked in the ICC’s top 10, skipper Angelo Mathews at number 10. The tourists have three: Smith (No.1), Adam Voges (no.6) and David Warner (No.8). Sri Lanka will boast two players – Mathews (59 Tests) and veteran spinner Rangana Herath (70) – who have notched the most Tests of any player from either side, with Nathan Lyon (54) and David Warner (51) the most capped of the tourists. But there is a brittleness about their batting order, should Dimuth Karunaratne (28 Tests, average 34.33) and Kaushal Silva (27 Tests, average 31.94) open, with Kusal Mendis (6 Tests, average 30.81) and Lahiru Thirimanne (26 Tests, average 24) following in the top order.
Silva was the fourth-leading scorer in the recent 2-0 Test series defeat in England. On the bowling front, Sri Lanka coach Graham Ford has been frustrated by the lack of depth in his quicks, with injuries also an issue in England. They will rely heavily on the left-arm guile of Herath. So much so that Test cricket’s leading wicket-taker, Muthiah Muralidaran, working as an Australian consultant until the start of the Kandy Test in his former home town, says: “Apart from [Herath] they don’t have any other bowler to get wickets for them.”
How is Australia’s batting line-up looking?
David Warner appears set to play in Kandy despite having a limited preparation because of a broken left index finger. He has only recently resumed batting in the nets but, as Lehmann has said, the robust left-hander does not require much time to regain his groove. Ricky Ponting was the same when at the peak of his powers and would often flourish after a limited preparation.
This will Joe Burns’ first Test tour of subcontinent, so he may need time to adjust. A strong 72 in the tour match against a Board XI was an encouraging start for the opener. Voges has averaged a stunning 95.50 in 15 Tests since his debut more than a year ago but, as is the case with any 36-year-old, his birth certificate won’t help if there are a string of early outs. The slow turn seen in the tour match could be a sign of things to come, demanding patience from batsmen used to dictating terms at every opportunity.
“We know that Sri Lanka will defend a lot once batters are in, so it’s going to take a lot longer to get your runs, if that makes sense. We’ve spoken about the need to bat long periods of time is going to be key, which we’ve done pretty well to be fair over the last little while, but the challenge is to do it here,” Lehmann said.
What about the bowlers?
The tourists have made no secret of the fact they believe spearhead Mitch Starc is the key to this series. Starc’s ability to extract bounce and swing, and deliver crushing yorkers, will be pivotal, both with the new ball and when it reverse swings. Caretaker bowling coach Allan Donald says the left-armer is the best quick in the world (he has an ICC ranking of 14 right now after recovering from injury). Expect him to get the nine scalps he needs to join the 100-wicket club. In what could be sauna-likeconditions, the tourists will need to ensure the ball remains dry to maximise their reverse swing.
Off-spinner Nathan Lyon, who had been ill, was wicketless in the first innings of the tour match, but responded with two in the second. He was overshadowed by Steve O’Keefe, who claimed 10 wickets for the match and almost certainly will add to his two Tests when the series opens in Kandy on Tuesday. Lehmann believes he is more in the “holding” mould of Herath, as opposed to Lyon’s more attacking flair.
“He [O’Keefe] has worked really hard, he’s a really lively, buzzy character for us and played exactly the role we want him to play over here in this game. Bats really well, fields really well and complements Nathan really well, spinning the other way,” Lehmann said.
O’Keefe, who was also more than handy with the bat, said he and Lyon had benefited from Muralidaran’s presence.
“The beauty of Murali [is] he’s always got something to say to you. He’s always got feedback, he’ll come up after each session and spell, and give you hints whether it be about the field or how they [opposition batters] might play. And the field settings are a little bit different, along with the fact these guys [the Sri Lankans] will probably sweep a bit more and play shots that we don’t typically see in Australia,” he said.
Lyon, though, remains the frontline tweaker. He needs five wickets to become the only Australian finger spinner in almost 140 years of Test cricket to reach 200 Test wickets.
What’s the bigger picture?
Tired of underperforming on the subcontinent, the tourists want victory here for two reasons. One, naturally, as they want to win any series they play in. But they will want to head to India in February for a four-Test series there with as much confidence as possible – not only in match situations, but in the manner they have prepared for this series. Specialist batting and bowling consultants, time spent on the specialist Asian pitches at the national training centre in Brisbane, and arriving in Sri Lanka early to have as much time as possible to adjust will all be methods they could replicate next year.
Australia has not won in India since the breakthrough tour of 2004, having dropped their past three series there, including a 4-0 mauling on the “homework-gate” trip of 2013. This impending series, which, as it stands, would pit the top two ranked nations, is one Smith’s men would particularly cherish.