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Crippled Australia, Weakened Sri Lanka Seek Redemption with Pink Ball

The Warne-Muralitharan Trophy is quite the object. Featuring the twirling hands of the two greatest spinners to ever practice their respective crafts, bowling grips displayed in detail, it is a reminder of a time when a contest between these countries packed a real punch.

Adam Collins |January 24, 2019, 3:51 PM IST
Crippled Australia, Weakened Sri Lanka Seek Redemption with Pink Ball

The Warne-Muralitharan Trophy is quite the object. Featuring the twirling hands of the two greatest spinners to ever practice their respective crafts, bowling grips displayed in detail, it is a reminder of a time when a contest between these countries packed a real punch.

Granted, it was rivalry was developed in this country through more white ball contests than red. It was then assisted, especially from the time of the brutal civil war from the 1980s, by hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans who came to this country in parlous circumstances and found their integration to a new life through the common language of cricket.

It is because of this proud history that there is a tinge of sadness heading into this Test series after the dreadful year that was for both countries. In the case of the visitors, crippled by one clandestine allegation after another, whitewashed at home by England to finish. As for Australia, the legacy of Cape Town finds new ways to stay relevant with each passing week.

Ahead of this Test, it was the appointment of Travis Head to the vice-captaincy that served as a reminder of how different the world continues to be. In the aftermath of the Sandpaper farrago, then in the searing cultural review, much was made of the role of the deputy and the need for it to be a lot more Geoff Marsh than David Warner. But in the South Australian, they have opted for a batsman who could just as easily been left out after the Indian loss.

“We’re trying to get to a point in our team where everyone is a leader and this is a great opportunity,” was the positive spin of Tim Paine. “Travis has obviously captained South Australia and the Adelaide Strikers for a few of years and done really well. And Pat Cummins is someone who is clearly seen as a really strong leader in our group. It’s just a chance to put some time into some guys in those roles.”

Overlooked was a far more experienced state captain, Usman Khawaja, and 84-Test veteran Nathan Lyon.

“Usman and Nathan Lyon and Mitchell Starc are leaders within this group and that won’t change,” Paine continued, “their behaviour won’t change. They’re highly respected as leaders in this group. We expect them to behave as they normally do.”

After hints all week that Will Pucovski would make three Australian debutants for the second time in four months – Paine especially lavish in his praise of the 20-year-old - they eventually settled on two: Kurtis Patterson and Jhye Richardson. In the case of both the efficient accumulator and western speedster, there is enough evidence there for why they are ready.

“It is what it is,” the Australian captain said of the unsettled nature of his team, which enabled Patterson to be leapfrogged into the team after missing out on the initial squad, named before the tour game where he scored twin tons. “When you’re not performing as well as you would like as a group there are going to be changes and that’s just the fact of the game we’re in. If we perform better we’ll have a more consistent side.”

Paine is adamant that the only focus he has right now is winning a series under his leadership for the first time, along the way protecting the fact that Sri Lanka have never beaten Australia in a Test here in 13 attempts across three decades. However, the day-night nature of this Test, played with the pink ball on a surface that is traditionally prone to lateral movement, is the best preview of challenges they will get in the Ashes before arriving in England mid-year.

With that trip in mind, Joe Burns, in for his first Test at home for two summers, has the chance on his home ground to all-but sew up a place, having beaten out his Queensland teammate, Matthew Renshaw, for the available position at the top of the order alongside Marcus Harris. His only other outing on this ground brought a maiden Test ton.

It might be this Queensland influence in the team, and the time of day that this Test is played, that saves the blushes of those who are responsible for getting punters through the gates. As of early January, there had been more tickets sold for the Canberra Test next week – a city with a population of 350,000, than there had been for this engagement with Brisbane’s 2.1m.

For all of Australia’s issues, as Russell Arnold, the former Sri Lankan mainstay, made clear, it is not as if the touring team are in much better shape. Speaking to the corruption claims that have so undermined the local game, his assessment is that trust is in short supply.

“You tend to wonder what the hell is going on,” he said. “I would be surprised if none of this is in the back of their mind, whether they can trust their teammate (or) anyone's instructions.”

So yes, there is no doubting that the road back for Australia is a long one - this year no sure thing to improve on the results of the one that it followed. But if they are to start a comeback, it could not be against a better opponent than Sri Lanka at a better venue than the Gabba. While it is unlikely this will be a series that goes down in the ages irrespective of what happens, to get their hands on this unique trophy would mean a tremendous amount to Paine.

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