Sri Lanka will miss the guile of Muttiah Muralitharan and the fire power of Lasith Malinga on their tour of England © Getty Images

 

By Nishad Pai Vaidya

 

Sri Lanka are going back to the land where it all started. Their tour to England of 2006 was the start of one of their most consistent runs in world cricket. That tour marked the beginning of the renaissance of Mahela Jayawardene as a leader and a batsman, the resurgence of Sanath Jayasuriya and a run of consistency. When you look at the tour they will embark upon shortly, it looks a very crucial tour for the cricketing fortunes of the Emerald Isle.

 

Sri Lanka went to England in 2006 with not much to show on form and results. The months leading up to the tour weren’t the best for Lankan cricket. In late 2005, they were convincingly beaten by India in India in both the ODI and the Test series. The ODI series in New Zealand yielded just one win and they were also beaten by Pakistan on their own turf in both Tests and ODIs. They managed some success in the VB series in Australia where they managed to reach the finals and beat the Aussies in the first of the best of three contests. Thus, when they set foot on English soil, everybody expected England to have an easy win. But few we could foresee the resurgence of Sri Lanka.

 

In the first Test at Lord’s, England amassed 551 and bowled out Sri Lanka for 192. Following on, Sri Lanka put up an epic fight. Five batsmen scored fifties which included Nuwan Kulasekara and Chaminda Vaas. Their captain Mahela Jayawardene played one of his best knocks ever. He faced 220 balls to score 119, an innings full of grit and guts as he held England to a draw.

 

Sri Lanka were beaten in the next Test match, but the confidence they got from saving the first one set the tone for them for the entire tour. That confidence translated into performance when Sri Lanka pulled off a fantastic win in the third Test match at Nottingham. Muttiah Muralitharan wrapped up England in the final innings with an eight wicket haul and Lanka surprised everybody by drawing the Test series 1-1.

 

The third Test was just a sign of things to come as Sri Lanka clean swept England in the ODI series 5-0. It was a good all-round performance from them as their batsmen put up the runs on the board and their bowlers were able to bowl the opposition out. The best was saved for last ODI when they chased down a target of 322 in just under 38 overs. Sanath Jayasuriya revived himself during this series with two big hundreds, of which his 152 in the final ODI was unbelievable. Upul Tharanga also cemented his place in Sri Lanka’s top order and Jayawardene showed better consistency.

 

This successful tour kicked-off a very successful run for the Lankans. In the years to come, the core of their team remained the same. The home series that followed the tour of England was against South Africa which they won 2-0. Later in the year they had a successful tour to New Zealand. They reached the World Cup final in 2007 and 2011 and also made it to the final of the ICC World T20 2009. Their key players of the 2011 World Cup were a part of the successful 2006 tour. It just shows how important that tour was for Lankan cricket as they were able to find the right balance and combination in their team.

 

Sri Lankan cricket is moving into a new phase. Kumar Sangakkara and Jayawardene have given up their leadership roles, Jayasuriya is not in the team any more and Muralitharan has retired from all forms of international cricket. The biggest surprise, however, is the retirement of Lasith Malinga from Test cricket. Under a new leader in Tillakaratne Dilshan, Sri Lanka are looking to rebuild after a few good years in international cricket and I do not think there is a better place to start. Their success in England the last time around would give them a lot of confidence although England are a much better team than what they were in 2006.

 

Firstly, Dilshan and the team management have to find the right combination in their bowling department. With Malinga retiring from Test matches, Dilhara Fernando will have to take the responsibility to lead a young pace attack. He will lead an inexperienced pace battery comprising Nuwan Pradeep, who is yet to make his international debut, Chanaka Welegedera, Thissara Perrera, and Suranga Lakmal. It remains to be seen how they handle their pace resources during this tour.

 

With Muralitharan’s retirement, it is time the other spinners like Rangana Herath, Ajantha Mendis and Suraj Randiv come to the forefront. These spinners have always lived under the shadow of Test cricket’s highest wicket taker but now comes the time when they have to make themselves noticed. Since Murali’s retirement they haven’t played much Test cricket – just two Tests against India and a washed out series against the West Indies – which makes this tour even more crucial. Generally in England, teams tend to play just the one spinner, so it would be interesting to see who gets the nod.

 

The importance of their previous tour can be weighed in hindsight, but from the outset this tour looks crucial for their team building. Their batting line-up is no worry and should remain the same, but one has to see how they manage their bowling. Without Malinga and Murali, it would be a challenge for the Lankans. They have to rise to the occasion like they did the last time around.

(Nishad Pai Vaidya, a 20-year-old law student, is a club and college-level cricketer. His teachers always complain, “He knows the stats and facts of cricket more than the subjects we teach him.”)