A while after the handshakes and relatively subdued Indian celebrations of an emphatic 304-run victory, Percy Abeysekera, Sri Lankan’s most famous cricket fan, stood forlorn on the outfield. The flag in his hand was barely waved, and Percy himself looked old and withered. He’s seen better days, as has Sri Lankan cricket.
But Percy is an ebullient soul, and by the time the post-match presentation began, he was talking animatedly with Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli, reducing the Indian captain to peals of laughter at one point. Perhaps in them, he saw reminders of those better days. Dhawan, an attacking left-hander, plays at full throttle, much like Sanath Jayasuriya – now Sri Lanka’s chief selector – once did. As for Kohli, he’s one of the few whose cover drives can evoke the magnificent Aravinda de Silva.
For now, this Rangana Herath-led side is a far cry from those that bossed most opposition here for well over a decade once the corner had been turned under Arjuna Ranatunga. The batting looks especially frail. It tells you something that the batsman most missed here was Dinesh Chandimal, whose career average of 42 gives you a clue about his struggle for consistency.
Kusal Mendis has the makings of a fine batsman. Dimuth Karunaratne can hold down an end on an easy-paced pitch like this one. But the gun batsmen, the ones who can keep the opposition awake at night, are nowhere to be found. Nor can you see too many scrappers. For every Aravinda and Jayasuriya and Mahela Jayawardene, there was a Hashan Tillakaratne or Marvan Atapattu who could anchor an innings and let the glory boys express themselves.
The bowlers also delivered in tandem. Once he had done his damage with the new ball, Chaminda Vaas, now bowling coach, could choke off the runs at one end while Muttiah Muralitharan went to work from the other. When Vaas faded, Lasith Malinga came along. The template of attacking, attractive batsmanship and wily, accurate bowling was established, and Sri Lankan cricket was fortunate to find the personnel to essay those roles.
Unlike the last Galle Test, which was played on a surface full of tricks, this was a blemish-less pitch. Even on the fourth evening, there was nary a mark to be found. Usually, on Asian pitches, the area where you get the cluster of bowlers’ footmarks resembles a lunar crater by the fourth day. Here, even that looked pristine.
India made three hundreds, two of them to set up the game in the first four sessions. Sri Lanka managed five half-centuries. On this kind of pitch, that just isn’t good enough. Their first innings featured partnerships of 61, 57 and 58. Shikhar Dhawan and Cheteshwar Pujara added 253.
The gulf was no less with the bowling. Herath finished with 1 for 193 in 49 overs. Lahiru Kumara bowled with real pace at times, but also sprayed it like Mannekin Pis. Dilruwan Perera may have shone with the bat, but he offered neither control nor wickets in his primary role. Asela Gunaratne’s absence was certainly felt with the bat, but there’s been little evidence in his six-match career to suggest that he’s a game-changer with the ball.
Most of all though, Sri Lanka are now paying the price for years of ineptitude off the field. There has been so much political interference at board level that the focus has seldom been on building a robust infrastructure. White-elephant stadia have been built, but a moribund first-class system is no finishing school for talented players. And the old way of fast-tricking talented schoolboys into the national side has no place in the professional era.
That administrative laxity has also contributed to a lost generation. Less than a decade ago, India came to Sri Lanka and were routed by Ajantha Mendis, who had been playing for the Army side less than a year earlier. Now 32, an age when many spinners come into their prime, Mendis isn’t even on the fringes. Neither are Farveez Maharoof, Thisara Perera or Chamara Kapugedera. Lahiru Thirimanne, just 27, once made 91 against Australia in Sydney. Now, he’s not even in the squad.
That’s not to say that these individuals are blameless or that everyone who makes a promising start goes on to become a world-beater. But a country with a far smaller playing pool than most – Sri Lanka’s population is one-eighth that of Bangladesh – needs to show far greater care towards its players. Legends like Kumar Sangakkara have spoken repeatedly about this, but few in the corridors of power ever listen.
This year alone, Sri Lanka have lost a home Test to Bangladesh, and come within a very poor third-umpire decision of losing to Zimbabwe. They have now been hammered in Galle, a venue that was once a fortress, pun intended. And the way they went about their cricket in this game suggested that the nadir has yet to be reached.
It was around the time that Sri Lanka cricket found its feet that West Indies began their inexorable slide down the rankings. With so few countries now competitive at Test level, cricket simply cannot afford for the lights to go out in Sri Lanka, as it did two decades ago with the Caribbean powerhouse.
For Percy and thousands of other Sri Lankan fans, this defeat wasn’t quite the saddest dusk, but with few shoots of hope visible, it’s the name of that REM album that will give them much to ponder. It was called Out of Time.
Cheteshwar PujaraFrom the press boxFrom The PressboxIndia vs Sri Lanka 2017R AshwinRavindra Jadejashikhar dhawanvirat kohli
First Published: July 29, 2017, 7:43 PM IST