Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Sri Lanka’s annus mirabilis, and my confession

Win in Bangladesh? Sure. Win the Asia Cup? Well done! Win the World T20? FANTASTIC. Win all three series in England, including a first ever Test series win in England, off the penultimate ball of the series. Annus mirabilis beckoning.

Late June may be an early time to pass verdict on a year, but if it continues as it has gone so far, Sri Lanka’s own new era may be dawning into view. They’ve dealt with the loss of some big players in the last few years, going back to Muttiah Muralitharan. Since then, they’ve lost Dilshan at the top, Samaraweera at five, Chaminda Vaas, and Lasith Malinga. Those are all players England would love to have.

A mix of new and old pushes forward for Sri Lanka. Shaminda Eranga is a unassumingly effective seam bowler, outswing with the new ball, seam and cutters later on, and accurate to the end. Rangana Herath is both new and old, 36 years old, but enjoying his second life as a Test bowler, out from under Murali’s shadow.

Then you have Sanga and Mahela. Kumar in the form of his career; Mahela as cheeky and inventive as ever. They won’t be around for longer, but they will surely see out this fine year. They will be the hardest to replace, but there are signs that others could handle the burden.

Angelo Matthews had a fine series at number six, capped with the finest of second innings hundreds, and when Sangakkara retires, that number three position could he his. He hasn’t the technical perfection of the great man, but determination, savvy, and weight of stroke could prove an able replacement.

But enough of future changes, this fine team should remain essentially unchanged through the rest of their year. Perhaps Dimuth Karunaratne’s lack of conversion will concern, and maybe the second spinner isn’t a nailed on certainty for when they return home, but with three series to go this year, their position is strong.

The first will be another humdinger. South Africa may be recently deposed as numero uno, but they still haven’t lost an away Test series since 2006 in, guess where…. Sri Lanka. Home advantage should set up an evenly matched series.

Eight days after that series ends, Pakistan become the next challange, two Tests, Galle and Colombo, the usual drill. They’ll be just as tough as South Africa, not as good a team overall, but better suited to the conditions. But at home, with this confidence, it’s winnable.

Then there’s a wait, ten ODIs intervene, until the Test team travels again. This could be the capper to the year. New Zealand are Test cricket’s coming team, perhaps the hardest of the three series will be taking on the Black Caps. The second Test starts just into the new year, and as it concludes we shall know. Good year? Or annus mirabilis?

As I write this, a nagging thought gnaws away at my brain. All through this tour, I, an Englishman, have been supporting Sri Lanka. When Jimmy Anderson fended to Herath, I cheered and clapped and toasted the “little Sri Lankans” as Tony Greig - who if he was still with us would I’m sure too would have been secretly delighted - used to say.

It’s easy to seem condescending if I say it was simply a case of supporting the underdog, and indeed, that wouldn’t be true. It’s a mix of that, dislike for an out of touch  England cricket establishment - ECB England as Yates puts it - along with genuine love and respect for some fantastic Sri Lankan cricketers.

 Sri Lanka will retain my support for the rest of this year, as they take on South Africa, Pakistan and New Zealand. Three series wins will do for me…. no pressure.

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