Galle will determine Australia’s cricket credibility

Date: August 4, 2016 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

AUS v SRLAustralia is the world number one ranked Test team but it looked anything but that at Pallekele. After dismissing Sri Lanka for 117 in the first innings and then building an 86-run lead it still managed to lose the opening Test by 106 runs.

In the process, Steve Smith’s men handed the hosts just their second Test victory against Australia in 27 matches. The next five days at Galle will be a test of not only Australia’s cricketing skills but its reputation and standing.

Ahead of this series most picked Australia to win. Some went so far as predicting that the home side would get walloped.

When all said and done, Australia’s only Test loss was in Kandy in 1999 where its stocks were dented mid-match when Steve Waugh and Jason Gillespie collided in the outfield.

Since then, Australia had always had Sri Lanka’s measure. The likes of Sangakarra, Jayawardene, Muralitharan, Vaas and co were unable to beat Australia Indeed, in Sri Lanka in March 2004, Australia won 3-nil. This time around those big names were long gone.

The team the home side rolled out for the opening Test, on paper at least, would hardly have struck terror into the Aussie line-up.

Five of the Sri Lankan XI had played less that ten Tests while only two – skipper Angelo Matthews and left-arm spinner, Rangana Herath – had played more than 30. Perhaps however, many were lulled into a false sense of security.

Yes, Australia has had a good record in Sri Lanka but only two of the XI who took to the field at Pallakele had played a Test in the country before – Nathan Lyon and Usman Khawaja.

In three Tests, Lyon had taken 10 wickets at 29.5 and in two Tests, Khawaja had scored 60 runs at 30.0.

For Khawaja, those two Tests five years ago were his only ones in the sub-continent while Lyon has played three Tests in India for ten wickets at 37.3.

Six of the first Test side – Joe Burns, Mitch Marsh, Adam Voges, Peter Nevill, Steve O’Keefe and Josh Hazelwood – were playing their first Test on the sub-continent.

The remaining three players’ sub-continent experience had come in India – David Warner’s four Tests producing 195 runs at 24.4; Smith’s two Tests producing 161 runs at 40.0; and Mitchell Starc’s two Tests resulted in two wickets at 100.0.

In essence, the Australians had either no experience in the sub-continent, and with the exception of Lyon, somewhere between modest and very poor results.

At Pallekele the tourists were largely found out.

Herath, at 38, added nine wickets to his pre-series tally of 304 with a combination of patience and guile.

In the first innings, Smith decided to target him, and in his attempt to lay down the law, threw his wicket away when he ran past a ball and got stumped –   it may go down in history as the worst shot he plays in his Test career. Nevill also tried to go big in the first innings off Herath only to mishit the ball to mid-on.

Coming off limited preparation, Warner made scores of nought and one to lower his average in five Tests on the sub-continent to 19.6.

Left-arm Chinaman, Lakshan Sandakan, bamboozled the Australians on his debut with match figures of 7-107. The batsmen regularly had trouble picking his deliveries with some lucky to last as long as they did.

If anything, the Pallekele pitch should have been the one that best suited the tourists. The surface in Galle is likely to be their least preferred. Reports are that it was dry a couple of days ago and there is every chance that it will take significant turn early on.

Historically the Galle strip has been a haven for spinners. To date, 61.8 per cent of wickets to fall in Tests at the ground have gone the way of the spinners. Of all the venues around the world to have hosted over ten Tests, only the Chowdhury Stadium in Chittagong has produced a higher percentage of wickets taken by spin bowlers.

In 15 Tests at Galle, Muralitharan captured 111 wickets at 18.5, while Herath, who made his Test debut at the ground against Australia in 1999, has captured 78 wickets in 14 Tests at 24.3 against a career average of 29.6.

Performances such as those have gone a long way to making Galle the only venue in Sri Lanka where the home team has a better than 50 per cent winning record.

With O’Keefe having succumbed to a hamstring strain, Australia’s support act to Lyon will be the uncapped Victorian left-arm orthodox, Jon Holland. Once again Lyon will be under pressure to get the job done in favourable conditions, especially late in the match.

Australia can expect to see a lot of Herath, Sandakan and off-spinner Dilruwan Perera, who captured just the one wicket at Pallekele. Their collective technique and application will need to far exceed what was displayed up in the mountains.

In the first Test, the visitors saw way too much of 21-year-old, Kusal Mendis. In just his seventh Test, he peeled off a majestic 176 – remarkably just his second first-class century. His shot selection, footwork and patience was hopefully educational for the Australian batsmen.

If the necessary lessons have not been learned from the opening Test Australia will lose the series, and with it, the number one ranking. Sri Lanka’s grounds have historically been Elysian fields for Australian cricket, however that was courtesy of players who have long since left the arena.

As for the current Australian team, its credibility is at stake over the next five days.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 4 August 2016, soliciting 25 comments