There was a time when playing at home was Sri Lanka’s biggest strength against the best of opponents. But, times have certainly changed. The days of Muttiah Muralitharan running through opponents, and Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara frustrating bowlers with marathon knocks are a thing of the past. Sri Lanka will now go into the series against Australia at underdogs despite being hosts. In fact, they haven’t beaten Australia in a Test since the series win at home back in 1999, famously remembered for the collision between Jason Gillespie and Steve Waugh. In subsequent years, even the magic of Murali, Sanga or Mahela failed to deliver wins.
Sri Lanka are returning from a drubbing received at the hands of England, and their confidence will be at an all-time low. On paper, they have neither the batting nor the bowling to trouble the Australians. They have injury issues as well. Dhammika Prasad, their best fast bowler in recent times, is out of this series as well due to injury. Further, Dushmantha Chameera who has been impressive with his pace and potency in recent times, is also not available. The sad part is that it is not all. Shaminda Eranga will also be unavailable.
Among all the woes, Sri Lanka’s only hope will be left-arm spinner Rangana Herath. The ageing warrior has been at his very best over the last half a decade. And, at the turning surfaces on home, he will pose the biggest threat to the Aussies. In many ways, Sri Lanka’s fortunes may rise and fall with Herath, like it did with Murali. However, Murali had support from Chaminda Vaas, Sangakkara and Jayawardene. Herath will also need a helping hand from the likes of Dinesh Chandimal, Angelo Mathews and Dimuth Karunaratne among others.
Unlike Sri Lanka, Australia will go into the series high on confidence. In skipper Steven Smith, they have the number one Test batsman in the world at present, and he is also among the best players of spin at present. Then, there’s David Warner too, who can deteriorate any opponent on his day. Adam Voges, who has had a Bradmanesque start to his Test career, will be keen to continue his great run. Usman Khawaja and Joe Burns too will want to prove a point. If there is one area where Australia could falter, it is definitely against the spin of Herath, as mentioned earlier.
In the bowling, Australia will be dependent on left-arm seamer Mitchell Marsh, who would be keen to make a mark in sub-continent conditions. The last time Nathan Lyon came here he was a greenhorn, but now he has established himself as the team’s lead spinner. It remains to be seen how he performs this time. Considering the surface at Pallekele, there is every chance that Steve O'Keefe will play. Pacer Josh Hazlewood is the other pacer who should complete the playing eleven. Australia will undoubtedly begin as favourites, but Lanka will want to compete and make an impact.
--By A Cricket Analyst