Sri Lanka’s Lions lack bite of yore

In preparation for the 2011 World Cup, cohosted with India and Bangladesh, Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) decided to import 6 000 chairs that it could use at stadiums across the island. Not giant electronic screens, not super soppers, but chairs. By the time they arrived, the tournament had begun and, with issues about customs clearance, they stayed at the Colombo docks until long after it was over.

In preparation for that same World Cup, a state-of-the-art stadium was built at Hambantota, the personal fiefdom of then-president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Getting there was a herculean task and finding places to stay in the vicinity even harder. The 35 000-seat venue will not be hosting any games during South Africa’s tour of Sri Lanka, and it remains on the southeastern coast as a monument to SLC’s folly.

This, after all, is the cricket board that cancelled A-team tours and the like because of paucity of funds while sanctioning white-elephant projects to please those in power. This is the same organisation that refused to look after a player’s health and then questioned his loyalty after his Indian Premier League franchise paid for his surgery.

You cannot speak about the strife that Sri Lankan cricket finds itself in on the field these days without talking about the mess that prevails off it. Across the Palk Strait, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has often been embroiled in controversy. Zimbabwe’s cricket authorities have been notorious for funds conveniently disappearing, and South Africa had to confront the fiasco of the Global Cricket League that didn’t leave the runway. But for consistently appalling administration, SLC has set the bar very high indeed. In the mid-1990s, Ana Punchihewa, who headed Coke’s operations in Sri Lanka, joined the cricket board to inject a much-needed dose of professionalism. With Arjuna Ranatunga as captain, Sri Lanka then won the World Cup in 1996, beating Australia in the Lahore final. Within weeks, Punchihewa was gone, deposed in a palace coup by individuals who continue to wield influence despite a tangle of charges against them.

On the field, a team that was once so hard to beat on home turf has found it a struggle after the retirement of some of the greatest players in their history. Muttiah Muralitharan signed off with his 800th Test wicket against India in 2010 in Galle and Rangana Herath, who took over the spin mantle, is now 40. Bedevilled by knee problems, Lasith Malinga also quit Test cricket at the end of Murali’s farewell series.

Murali-sized voids were also left behind by Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, whose batsmanship once so tormented South Africa. The younger generation, captained by Dinesh Chandimal, has shown flashes of brilliance but not the consistency that Sangakkara and Jayawardene provided for so long.

Few South African supporters will ever forget the 2006 series on the island, when the sound of the ball meeting sweet spots on their bats gave the Proteas a throbbing collective headache. In the first Test at the Sinhalese Sports Club Ground, the two added a world-record 624. Jayawardene contributed a monumental 374, spanning more than two days of batting. In the next game, at the P Sara Oval across town, he made 123 as Sri Lanka chased down 352 with a wicket to spare. Mind you, this wasn’t against some popgun attack, but a line-up that included Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Shaun Pollock.

Not long after that, a triangular series featuring India was abandoned after a bomb went off near the team hotel. As the South African players prepared to fly home with the tournament abandoned, they had to be instructed not to look too gleeful.

Some, including the normally ebullient Ntini, were still traumatised by what Sangakkara and Jayawardene had put them through. The mere mention of the partnership would invoke faraway zombie stares.

It wasn’t just the opposition stalwarts that South Africa had to deal with, either. These matches, during what is typically monsoon season in South Asia, are also a physical ordeal. The humidity can be unbearable, and players a sodden mess within minutes of taking the field. On that 2006 tour, when South Africa played a practice game in one of Colombo’s suburbs, Roger Telemachus, the pace bowler who wasn’t always renowned for his attention to physical preparation, was on his haunches midway through an over, almost gasping for breath. Graeme Smith, clearly not amused, soon banished him to fine leg.

That was a phase during which Sri Lanka were intimidating opponents. In the decade from August 2001, they played 20 Test series at home, winning 15. The only losses were against Ricky Ponting’s all-conquering Australia and Pakistan, who didn’t exactly find the conditions alien. An Indian line-up comprising Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly was routed in 2008, with Ajantha Mendis, a mystery spinner drafted in from the army side, taking 26 wickets from the three Tests.

It’s been a different tale since, as generational change, lack of stability in the coaching position and administrative missteps all took a toll.

Since August 2011, Sri Lanka’s series record at home was a mediocre 6-5. Last season, India went over and thrashed them in all three Tests. When South Africa last visited four years ago, they won in Galle, where Steyn took 9 for 99, and survived at the Sinhalese Sports Club Ground, with Hashim Amla and Vernon Philander central to an epic rearguard action.

In Chandika Hathurusingha, Sri Lanka have one of the game’s more respected coaches. But it speaks volumes about the state of their administration that he had to prove himself elsewhere, especially with Bangladesh, before getting the call. Chandimal will likely miss the South Africa series because of an International Cricket Council ban and experience is thin on the ground.

Test cricket also stopped enticing Sri Lankan crowds a long time ago. In Galle, some will watch curiously from the ramparts of the Dutch fort that overlooks the ground. Others might peer through the gates, if those aren’t actually barricaded. Few, though, will venture through the turnstiles.

In Colombo, it’s likely to be even worse, where small tour groups compete for cavernous space with schoolkids bussed in to provide a semblance of atmosphere.

For South Africa, as they face up to a future without the utterly unique talent of AB de Villiers, this is an important tour, a great opportunity to consolidate the gains of the home season when they beat India and Australia. For Sri Lanka, who have been on a downward spiral for much of the past decade, it’s one more chance for players to establish themselves in the side.

Suranga Lakmal and Lahiru Kumara can do some damage with the new ball, but South Africa’s hopes of winning a third series on Sri Lankan soil — the first was a quarter-century ago — will depend largely on how they tackle the wily Herath and the promising Lakshan Sandakan. But with Murali, Sangakkara and Jayawardene now on the other side of the boundary, the Serendip challenge is no longer what it once was. 

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