A disastrous year for Sri Lanka © Getty Images & AFP
A disastrous year for Sri Lanka © Getty Images & AFP

What if I told you that Sri Lanka have won 2 and lost 1 in their last 5 Tests away from home? Mind you, these were not easy tours. Only one team (Australia in 2002, an incomplete series) have beaten Pakistan in a series in UAE. Sri Lanka became the second. Even if one claims that they got away at Kolkata, it cannot be denied that they drew the Delhi Test honourably (albeit after some controversy). In fact, had they scored one more run in the second innings, they would have become the first touring team in five years to score 300 in each innings on Indian soil.

Sounds good? Not quite, for that was about the only high in Sri Lanka’s miserable year. Sri Lanka won only 2 more Tests in the entire year. The first, against Bangladesh, was avenged immediately by the tourists. The other win was a hard-earned one against Zimbabwe, where all eight batsmen reached double-figures in pursuit of 388.

They lost 7 Tests this year. The win-loss 4:7 ratio (0.57) is poor, but a more worrying aspect is the list of abject surrenders. Bangladesh beat them by 4 wickets, but the others have not been as lenient.

South Africa had thrashed them on Boxing Day last year, by 206 runs. They completed the whitewash this year by winning the remaining Tests by 282 runs and by an innings.

But a far more brutal blow came later that year. India whitewashed Sri Lanka 3-0 in Sri Lanka, winning the first Test by 304 runs and the other two by innings. Sandwiched between the Kolkata and Delhi Test was another win for India, by an innings and 239 runs at Nagpur.

Deeper blues for Men in Deep Blue

The ODIs were worse. They won 5 and lost 23 ODIs, and 2 of the 5 wins in their 2-3 home defeat against Zimbabwe. Their win-loss ratio reads 0.22: to provide perspective, this has been their worst since 1991. This is not a one-off, either: the 2016 ratio (0.67) was their worst since 2009.

They also drew 1-1 against Bangladesh at home. It was, thus, rather surprising that they have beaten India twice — including once at the Champions Trophy. To be fair, had Thisara Perera not dropped Sarfraz Ahmed in the virtual quarter-final, the rest of the tournament might have panned out differently.

But they were generally walloped by everyone in ODIs. South Africa blew them away 5-0. I have mentioned the Bangladesh and Sri Lanka series. They lost 0-5 to India at home and 0-5 to Pakistan in UAE. They broke the humiliation with that Dharamsala win, following which they lost at Mohali and Visakhapatnam.

And amidst all this, they have managed to win 2 T20I series — in South Africa and Australia. One may argue that South Africa, led by Farhaan Behardien, was not the strongest outfit, there are no such qualms about Australia. For once a team entered an Australia tour as favourites: Sri Lanka held a 3-0 advantage over Australia in Australia till the series; they merely extended it to 6-1.

They also won their next T20I, against Bangladesh, before the tourists levelled the series. Indeed, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh drew 1-1 in all three formats, which can indicate Sri Lanka’s fall or Bangladesh’s rise or both.

Then came consecutive defeats, 8 of them, in three countries: from a head-to-head of 5:2 Sri Lanka slumped to 10. Their win-loss ratio of 0.5 is the third-worst in their history. The worst two were 0.33 (2015) and 0.23 (2016). It is up to you whether you call this an upward curve or a three-year slide.

Amidst all this, three men led Sri Lanka in Tests, five in ODIs, and four in T20Is. Only Angelo Mathews led across all three formats. In all, they were led by seven men in a calendar year: how is a team supposed to win?

A few highs, but generally a disastrous year

There was the occasional high. Dinesh Chandimal and Dimuth Karunaratne, for example, played a few innings of note. They scored 3 hundreds each, and were the only ones to top the 1,000-run mark. Nobody else got to even 800.

As always, Kusal Mendis frustrated selectors and fans throughout the year. He scored 110 in 135 balls against India on a burning deck at SSC and got another hundred this year. And yet, despite reaching double-figures 17 times in 20 innings, he got only one more fifty. Nevertheless, there is little doubt over his talent.

Mathews disappointed (barring that magnificent hundred at Delhi). Asela Gunaratne shone despite his limited outings (he got injured during the Galle Test and took no further part in the Test or the year).

Rangana Herath had 52 wickets this year, at 27.53, to nobody’s surprise. Even at 39 the loveable bank clerk continues to remain Sri Lanka’s go-to man.

The most worrying aspect of the Sri Lankan side is the fact that none of their other bowlers (with more than 3 wickets) averaged below 35. Take Dasun Shanaka’s 6 wickets at 35.83 away, and nobody is below even 42. Suranga Lakmal’s spell at Kolkata was indeed a one-off.

The opposition feasted on the toothless attack time and again, leaving the Sri Lankans little place to hide. The trend continued throughout the year: they conceded 22 hundreds in 22 innings, half of which was shared by the top four Indian batsmen.

Sri Lanka’s bowling averages for 2014, 2015, and 2016 read 33.94, 33, and 28.80 respectively. This year it rose to 40.92. But that is not all: take Herath away (though he carries an aura of eternity), and the number becomes 46.04. Indeed, dark days lie ahead.

The batting was also sub-par, but the fall was not as drastic: after the high of 2014 (37.67), the last three years have been 25.67, 28.63, and 27.04. The fall had taken place in 2015 already, which is probably why the batting did not seem as grim this year.

Mathews might have failed in Test cricket, but his ODI numbers (573 runs at 63.67) have been impressive. The strike rate of 77 isn’t great, but one must remember that he has always batted uphill. With over a thousand runs at 48.14 (strike rate 92), Upul Tharanga has shown that the second innings of his career has gone off to a good start.

Barring them, Niroshan Dickwella has gone off to fliers at times. He scored two hundreds and finished with a strike rate of 96. However, Sri Lanka’s greatest limited-overs win this year, against India at Cardiff, was masterminded by a group of inconsistent batsmen — Kusal Mendis, Kusal Perera, Danushka Gunathilaka, and Asela Gunaratne, with Mathews providing some much-needed touch.

Akila Dananjaya bowled the spell of the year for Sri Lanka. It was not his fault that India, despite being down at 131 for 7, chased down 231 without losing another wicket. He had taken 6 for 54 and had deceived everyone barring MS Dhoni; what else could he have done?

As in Test cricket, Lakmal bowled one, and exactly one, superlative spell in ODIs: his 10-4-13-4 at Dharamsala was an incredible display of controlled seam bowling, and gave Sri Lanka a much-deserved win. Nuwan Pradeep did not have a great year, but it was he who kept Sri Lanka in the hunt in the Champions Trophy match against Pakistan.

Lasith Malinga returned to the fray as well, but did little of note in ODIs. It was a different matter in T20Is, however: he took a single wicket in the India match at Premadasa, and at least 2 in each of his other 5 matches. This included a hat-trick against Bangladesh. Exactly why he was not picked for the T20Is in India will remain a mystery.

A similar treatment was dished out to Nuwan Kulasekara after he featured in Sri Lanka’s triumphs in South Africa and Australia. Kulasekara took 4 for 31 in the win at Geelong, but did not really play much thereafter.

Again, a worrying aspect was the fact that between them, Malinga and Kulasekara — the two senior men — took 22 wickets at 20.36. The others had 55 at 35.25 between them.

Head-to-head, 2017

  M W L W/L
Tests 13 4 7 0.6
ODIs 29 5 23 0.2
T20Is 15 5 10 0.5

Most runs

Tests ODIs T20Is
  M R Ave 100s   M R Ave SR   M R SR
Dimuth 13 1031 39.65 3 Tharanga 25 1011 48.14 92 Niroshan 9 233 141
Chandimal 12 1003 45.59 3 Niroshan 26 826 33.04 96 Asela 11 221 133
Niroshan 11 773 38.65 Mendis 22 587 27.95 79 K Perera 5 181 146
Mendis 10 669 33.45 2 Mathews 15 573 63.67 77 Munaweera 9 176 144
Mathews 9 524 29.11 1 Danushka 15 539 35.93 83 Tharanga 10 171 129

Most wickets

Tests ODIs T20Is
  M W Ave 5s   M W Ave Econ   M W Econ
Herath 11 52 27.53 5 Lakmal 16 19 34.15 5.19 Malinga 6 12 8.25
Dilruwan 11 34 47.52 1 Akila 13 18 33.05 5.07 Kula 8 10 8.62
Lakmal 10 23 43.26 Thisara 14 11 44 6.51 Sanjaya 8 9 8.67
Kumara 6 19 42.36 1 Pradeep 10 10 43.8 5.84 Thisara 9 7 8.49
Sandakan 5 16 45.18 1 Asela 19 10 48.1 5.52 Lakshan 3 6 6.33

Most wicketkeeping dismissals

Tests ODIs T20Is
  M C S   M C S   M C S
Niroshan 11 21 9 Niroshan 23 17 5 Chandimal 3 3 2
Chandimal 2 10 Chandimal 6 4 1 Niroshan 6 5

Thisara in T20Is (including World XI matches)

  Batting Bowling
M R SR W Econ
12 171 158 13 8.97

Footnote

A word or two about Thisara here is probably worth a mention. Thisara was the only Sri Lankan to be picked for the ICC World XI that toured Pakistan.

He launched two furious onslaughts. In the second match his 47 not out took 19 balls; and in the third, he got a 13-ball 32. He was the star in his side’s only win, and won the only Man of the Match for them.

A haul of 96 runs at a strike rate of 223 cannot be ignored. He also took 2 wickets in each of the 3 matches. The economy rate was 10.09, but the wickets came at 18.50 apiece. These are reasonably superior to his Sri Lanka tally of 75 runs (strike rate 115) and 7 wickets (average 31.14, economy 8.49) from 9 matches.