Sri Lanka December 27, 2016

From farce to fierce

Sri Lanka provided laughs with their slapstick incompetence in the first half of the year, then came storming back with a whitewashing of Australia

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Rangana Herath - Sri Lanka's player of the year

We've all laughed at Sri Lanka's transition this year, so to begin with, let's get a few gags out of the way.

In the first half of 2016, Sri Lanka's transition was into more transition. In the first half of 2016, Sri Lanka transitioned from being a competitive side into a crap one. They meandered, they squandered winning positions - some players regressed. If that Sri Lanka team had been in charge of our evolution from apes, we would all by now be sea slugs.

Having failed in February's Asia Cup, they lowered expectations to the bottom floor, then, at the World T20, went about crashing through to the basement. They made an artform of slapstick fielding; it was like Charlie Chaplin was their coach. They high-fived the ball instead of catching it. They kicked it. They chest-bumped it. They danced flailingly around it like it was the wooden idol in a tribal ritual. At least in an I'm-laughing-because-otherwise-I'd-have-to-cry kind of way, they were fun to watch.

In the Test at Headingley, on a green altar of seam bowling, batsmen made an obeisant offering of edges to collect scores of 91 all out and 119 all out. There was resurgence in Chester-le-Street, but not before the game - and the series - had already been surrendered in the first innings. When they returned from England having suffered another limited-overs battering, then plunged to 117 all out in the first innings of the home series against Australia, the final fragments of hope were beginning to dwindle.

But how emphatically they made the turn. Kusal Mendis had been playing in the little-loved Moin-ud-Dowlah tournament only a year before, but on day three in Pallekele he produced one of the greatest Sri Lankan Test innings, to hoist his team out of the gutter. He quelled Mitchell Starc, attacked Josh Hazlewood, muted Nathan Lyon, and finished with 176 in a Test where no one else managed more than 55. When Rangana Herath polished the victory off in masterful style, joy had begun flooding back.

Smack that: Kusal Mendis brought his side back from the dead with his 176 in Pallekele © Associated Press

The best thing about the whitewash of Australia was the quintessential Sri Lankan-ness of it all. Consider the heroes: Mendis, the 21-year-old son of a doting Moratuwa three-wheeler driver; Herath, the 38-year-old kegful of Waduwawa man; Dhananjaya de Silva, who bats like he is slung in a hammock on southern beach near where he grew up; Lakshan Sandakan, the big-turning surprise spinner, and the first Asian left-arm wristspinner to play Tests. Together they achieved a dominance over Australia that even the best Sri Lankan teams could scarcely imagine.

Two Test wins over Zimbabwe followed, and ahead of a South Africa series now, there is hope. Major flaws remain: the pace attack is constantly wracked with injury, the Test openers are unsteady, Lasith Malinga's absence in limited-overs cricket is sorely felt. But there is optimism that in recent months the raw materials of what could be a good team have come together. A year of stiff tests awaits.

On the administration front, Sri Lanka Cricket is now in the grips of political showmen - sultans of the pre-series tamasha, caliphs of the hour-long press conference, and emperors of the self-congratulatory media release. These folks love to be seen to be doing a good job, even if - and let us appreciate that this does not come easy to most SLC officials - it occasionally takes actually doing a good job to achieve that.

Among their wins was the salvation of Kusal Perera, and the hiring of Graham Ford as head coach. Among their failures was the continuing sorry state of domestic cricket, the pointless en-masse flocking to London for the Lord's Test, and their general participation in a bloated, inept and dysfunctional organisation.

They are certainly not the worst Sri Lanka board in recent years. But they remain, you know, SLC.

High point
The SSC win to seal the 3-0 win over Australia was great, but it was in Galle that Sri Lanka were at their most predatory, having virtually won the match by lunch on the second day. A Mendis 86 helped Sri Lanka to 281 on a tough pitch, then the spinners went to work and it was basically a blur of wickets after that. So good were Dilruwan Perera and Herath that they virtually made two of Sri Lanka's four front-line bowling options superfluous for much of this game. It was all over before tea on day three. Angelo Mathews even reviewed effectively.

One heading out, one heading back in: Lasith Malinga and Graham Ford © Associated Press

Low point
The World T20 title defence, in which Sri Lanka mustered victory over Afghanistan, but lost to West Indies, England and South Africa. Without Malinga helming the attack and with no pep in their game, Sri Lanka were unrecognisable from the side that had dominated the shortest format between 2012 and 2015. The bowling of legspinner Jeffrey Vandersay was perhaps the sole positive.

New kid on the block
Who else but Mendis, who brings composure, style and efficiency to his work, and at the end of it all appears completely unaffected by the hype. It is in Tests that he will perhaps be most valuable to Sri Lanka, but he has begun to string together some excellent ODI performances as well, most notably in the tri-series in Zimbabwe, in which scores of 94 and 57 in crunch matches won him the Player-of-the-Tournament prize.

Fading star
Malinga has not been at his best since 2014, when his leg injuries began to flare up again - the ailments not helped by his extra weight. He is back in training after surgery on his ankle this year, but whether he will return the same match-winning bowler remains to be seen.

What 2017 holds
Following the full tour to South Africa, which concludes at the end of January, a two-Test home series against Bangladesh is being planned for March. After the Champions Trophy, home Tests against Zimbabwe and India are tentatively scheduled, before a three-Test away series against Pakistan in October. Then they head to South Africa again. If all the cricket is played as scheduled, Sri Lanka may play as many as 13 Tests in the year.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • darren4415767 on January 2, 2017, 5:26 GMT

    Beating Australia in Asia is a solid effort, but let's face it -- away from home the Australians are not a top side these days. Will they even draw a game in the upcoming series against India? That series was SL's to lose, and they maybe won more strongly than we expected, but I think we all really expected 2-0 to SL.

  • hniles9235786 on January 2, 2017, 1:09 GMT

    I agree with Thilina. Dhananjaya de Silva seems more consistent and reliable although the spotlight is on Kusal Mendis. I hope the selectors move him up the order as Sri Lanka has the worst performing top 3 in Test cricket at the moment.

  • thilina dhanapala on December 29, 2016, 10:17 GMT

    Kusal Mendis is still overrated. Dhananjaya Silva seems to be more established and consistent at the moment

  • Jay Gadsdon on December 28, 2016, 13:16 GMT

    Looking back last 15 years id say even with all them draws at home they still seem to be the most entertaining player by play test side, i think the author sums it up with, a line about somewhere close to where he grew up, infact most of the players allhave these funky home baked techniques murali malinga jayawardene dilshan all of themreally thoroughly entertaining from wicked non spinning deliveries that left the viewer thinking how did that NOT turn to fumbles when catching and funny fielding.

  • nethun6224372 on December 28, 2016, 2:19 GMT

    @SAMROY it was only boring in 2015- 2014 we were pretty damn epic and we won basically everything in 2014 Guys i hope dimuth and kaushal get dropped before bd tour since their averages will probably rise after taht

  • Ranil on December 28, 2016, 0:58 GMT

    @KingOwl, Quite contrary to what you say that is the BEST SL can hope for if we are returning to SA next year. Best thing that can happen!! With whatever experience gained from the present tour, a serious attempt can be made for a very successful tour.Kudos to SLC if they instigated this & should plan similar back to back tours to other difficult places, ie Australia & India.

  • Chatty on December 27, 2016, 18:16 GMT

    Heading to SA again later next year? Why? There is something wrong with cricket schedules. Why not invite SA to SL for a return leg? Going back a second time in the same year does not make any sense (unless it is an ICC event).

  • Anupam on December 27, 2016, 16:50 GMT

    Winning matches against a team who are the worst subcontinent travelers on heavily spinning pitches is a false dawn. SL have been abysmal for long and i believe will take more time for them to become truly competitive. They probably have the worst top 3 for any team, only a couple of high potential batsman (Mendis, Chandimal?, DeSilva?), one world class bowler (Herath) and a captain who is struggling. They were pretty easily defeated by India in SL and lost almost everything last year (discounting Zimbabwe win). They are a team in transition and will certainly improve but that is going to take a longtime and huge losses.

  • naik.r2620519 on December 27, 2016, 15:01 GMT

    As per FTP Sri Lanka is touring India in Feb -March 2018

  • Harish on December 27, 2016, 12:41 GMT

    Though the schedule says 'home' tests against India, I believe Lanka will come here. It has already been over seven years, since they last came.

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