Sri Lanka v Australia

First Test, Pallekele International Stadium

26 – 30 July 2016

We are into the 18th year since Sri Lanka last won a Test match against Australia – their only one against them in their 33 year Test history. This losing streak, despite being spread across just two tours and 6 Tests between them, will remain a rare blot in the enviable home record of that golden generation – Muralitharan, Vaas, Jayawardene and Sangakkara. Australia’s sole win in Asia in 15 Tests since 2008 (excluding tours to Bangladesh) came in their 1-0 scrape through against the Lankans in 2011, even while smarting from an Ashes defeat.

Since that fated game in Kandy back in 1999, best remembered for that ugly clash between Steve Waugh and Jason Gillespie, there is little that remains unchanged. Rangana Herath, debutant during that series, is now a 70 Test veteran, and the sole thread connecting these trans-millennial tours.  In the absence of an entire crop of fast bowlers, having lost Dhammika Prasad and Dushmantha Chameera to injuries, in addition to Shaminda Eranga’s late suspension for a suspect action, Herath’s workload is set to be at its peak once again. With Suranga Lakmal’s race against the clock to be fully fit for the Test, Angelo Matthews, with a young debutant in Asitha Fernando or Vishwa Fernando, will lead a pace attack lacking in experience at this level.

Sri Lanka have won a single international match this year so far, and it is an ignominy they would be desperate to erase, against the World’s No.1 Test side. Their batting showed signs of improvement as the Test series in England wound to a close, but it says a lot about their form that Matthews is their best batsman at the moment.

If home conditions offer some welcome relief for the Sri Lankans, a quick glance at the Australian camp would indicate a stark, almost unrecognizable air to their preparations. Muttiah Muralitharan, “chucker” called for no-balls on Australian shores all those years ago, is guiding their spinners for this series, in his role as a consultant. Darren Lehmann has hailed him as a “fantastic coach”, and Murali’s presence in the green and gold camp has received parliamentary airtime this week in the island nation. While there has been the regular passive-aggressive stance from the Board and some ex-cricketers, the Australian spinners’ rich haul in their tour match at the P Sara Oval has been blown out of proportion, with some going to the extent of accusing Murali for offering the Aussies a conducive turner at his “home” ground.

While the altercation offers a bitter, needless sub-text to the first Test, it is partly due to the Aussies letting out a whimper at best, in their pre-series press conferences. The stinging zingers and pricking banter have been conspicuous by their absence, with Mitchell Starc’s line on Matthews being “under pressure” closer to the truth than being a point worth arguing about.

In any case, the home side run into a set of individuals on barely believable runs, ready to extend their hapless run for the year. Steve Smith has not yet lost a Test series as captain, Adam Voges averages a Bradmanesque 96, David Warner will look at this as his best opportunity to correct his poor Asian record, while Mitchell Starc is back for his first series since that foot injury. To add to all this, under Murali’s watch, the spin duo of Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe have warmed up with a bag of wickets in their tour game, and look set to start tomorrow.

18 years on from their only win in this duel, this looks Sri Lanka’s hardest home series in a long time. If they get anywhere close to a win against this Australian side, they would have done themselves proud.