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For about a year or two now, the Sri Lankans have been on the verge of greatness, occupying the spot that India (too briefly) held in the run-up to the 2003 World Cup as the no. 1 challenger to Australian dominance. Their 2007 campaign for the World Cup was near faultless, recalling the heady days of Aravinda Da Silva and Sanath Jayasuriya circa 1996. Their Test performances have also been impressive, having recently secured draws in Pakistan, England and — most shockingly, for a South Asian team — New Zealand.
To watch their 1st match performance in Brisbane, then, was a more than a bit disheartening. As Mahela Jayawardene himself admitted, losing a Test by an innings and 50 odd runs was “hurtful,” and not least because it was in no way indicative of how good Sri Lanka is.
Regardless of the result, the match was nowhere near as one-sided as New Zealand’s loss to South Africa (since when did the Kiwis play their cricket like they prefer dry pitches to the bouncy ones at home?). In fact, Sri Lanka’s challenge — and I think it was a bit of that — helps deconstruct Australia’s cricketing greatness. It’s one thing to say, as many observers in the tennis world do, that an athlete like Roger Federer is sublimely great; it’s another to actually understand what greatness means, and how it presents itself.
Ricky Ponting has now won 13 Tests in a row, and nothing — even the loss of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne — suggests that his winning streak will stop anytime soon. Watching them play Sri Lanka, however, was somehow different from the abominable Ashes 2006 experience, during which England — the once mighty Test side — capitulated, one match at a time. For one thing, while Dilhara Fernando was clearly not at his best, the Sri Lankans applied a fair amount of pressure on the Australian batsman, and for the first day (and a bit after that), the run-rate never really touched 3 runs an over. In fact, Michael Clarke struggled initially (as did Phil Jacques, who took 33 balls to get off the mark).
Overall, the Australians did the basics very well: their batsmen rarely slashed outside the off-stump, always reserving their best for balls that deserved a straight bat. By contrast, the Sri Lankans were never really sure where their stumps were, and in the first innings, they lost far too many wickets to the wicket-keeper, suggesting either very bad judgment or very bad footwork.
It didn’t help that Sri Lanka had made two colossal strategic errors in choosing to bowl and omitting Lasith Malinga. Ian Chappell has recently criticized Mahela for thinking that talking big is akin to acting big, but I think Chappell has missed an important point here: in far too many teams, Australia inspires all kinds of irrational fears (witness, for instance, South Africa’s ridiculous blitzkrieg strategy in the World Cup semi-final), and they are excellent at applying pressure (witness, for another example, the way Andrew Symonds runs in from cover after almost every ball at the start of the opposition’s innings). Unsure against Stuart Clark’s eerily consistent line, the Sri Lankan batsmen froze, when they could have easily waited to see the new ball through and enjoy the supposedly paradise pitch they were batting on.
Sri Lanka has the talent to win; it just needs to return to the basics, as Australia always do. The results will follow.