On the eve of this month’s opening Test between Sri Lanka and Australia at the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium near the ancient hill country ‘capital’ of Kandy, Steve Smith will be formally presented with the ICC World Championship Test mace.
The gilded ceremonial stick formally recognises Smith’s team rise to the top of the Test game’s rankings for the period ended March this year, but whether they finish the three-match series in mid-August still ranked at number one will depend entirely on their ability to overturn recent history.
Sri Lanka’s greatest-ever cricketer, record-breaking off-spinner Muthiah Muralidaran, concedes that Australia will begin favourites against a home team whose experience has been diluted through injuries and suspensions and whose confidence has taken a pummelling at the hands of England.
But Muralidaran also points out that the home side’s most significant advantage will be their familiarity with conditions that have proved bafflingly alien to Australian outfits in recent years and have seen only two teams from beyond the sub-continent secure a Test series win in Sri Lanka over the past decade.
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“Australia is favourite at the moment because they have played good cricket in the recent past,” Muralidaran told cricket.com.au.
“Sri Lanka on other hand is struggling a bit in all forms of the game so Australia will have an edge over Sri Lanka.
“They have a chance of winning the series because the Sri Lankan side is very inexperienced as lot of players retired recently and they are rebuilding the side so they won’t be strong enough.
“Therefore, Australia I think will have a good chance of winning the series.
“If they use the conditions properly and play their spinners well they definitely have a chance.”
Muralidaran’s caveat that the Australians must come to grips with their surrounds even before they lock horns with their hosts is based on a two-decade career in international company and far longer spent watching touring parties battle against Sri Lankan teams both strong and struggling.
England, currently number four on the world Test ladder but a chance to charge to the top should they complete a clean-sweep of their upcoming four-match home series against Pakistan and Smith’s team stumbles, have not won a Test series on Sri Lankan soil since 2001.
India, second in the rankings and also a notional prospect of moving ahead of Australia if they dominate their four-Test tour of the Caribbean, have managed just one series win from their past six journeys across the Palk Strait in 20 years despite playing in conditions almost identical to home.
And Pakistan, who could conceivably become the number one Test team if they succeed in the UK and Australia fails to win a match in Sri Lanka, have won eight of the 24 Tests they have played on the ‘Tropical Teardrop’ – a record bettered by only one touring Test nation.
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That being Australia, who have lost a solitary Test to Sri Lanka on its home patch since Greg Chappell led his country’s first official Test touring party there in 1983.
Even then, the Australians could claim to being unexpectedly under-resourced in that defeat at Kandy in 1999 given their skipper Steve Waugh and new-ball bowler Jason Gillespie both spent much of the match in hospital nursing fractures after an horrific on-field collision.
But any reassurance Smith might take from Australia’s historical success in Sri Lanka can be tempered by their recent form in ‘Asian’ conditions.
A record that shows a solitary Test victory on subcontinent-style pitches – that being the win at Galle on their previous tour in 2011 – in India, Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates over the past 10 years.
It’s why a number of Australia’s Test specialists, including spin duo Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe, ‘keeper Peter Nevill and opening batsman Joe Burns have spent time practising on purpose-prepared ‘spin’ pitches at the Bupa National Cricket Centre in Brisbane in recent months.
And several have already left Australia for further training in sub-continental conditions at Chennai, a week before a bulk of the Test squad departs for Sri Lanka on Saturday.
It’s why the Australians have a full two weeks (which includes a three-day tour match at Colombo) to further acclimatise before the first Test at Pallekele from July 26.
And it’s why Muralidaran believes it will be Australia’s ability to not only bowl spin effectively but nullify the impact of Sri Lanka’s most potent bowler – left-arm spinner Rangana Herath – that will prove far more important than past deeds and preparatory drills in deciding the outcome.
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“Normally you have to play at least two spinners in Sri Lanka because wickets are slower,” Muralidaran said in identifying the strip at Galle (where the second Test will start on August 4) as the one most likely to favour the spinners.
“Sometimes wickets take lot of turn, otherwise we have slow wickets and fast bowlers do not have much assistance unless they reverse (swing) the ball.
“Swing bowlers don’t do much in the Sri Lankan conditions so that’s why the spinners come into play.
“They got to have variety to win series in Sri Lanka.
“It is not just about how many spinners you have got. It is also about how well you are going to bat against spin.
“Rangana Herath is a very good bowler so they (Australia) will have to tackle him as well.
“You’ve got to put runs on the board for your bowlers to work on it.”
Muralidaran, who worked closely with Lyon during his stint as a consultant bowling coach before and during Australia’s 2014 tour to the UAE where they lost to Pakistan 2-0, rates highly the Australian who made his debut in Galle in 2011 and has accumulated 195 Test wickets since that day.
For his part, Lyon is also looking forward to renewing his relationship with Test cricket’s most successful bowler during the Qantas Tour of Sri Lanka that will also include five one-day internationals and two T20s following the Tests.
“He (Lyon) is a very good bowler, a very good off-spinner,” Muralidaran told cricket.com.au.
“He has proven himself in Test cricket and has taken a lot of wickets for Australia.
“He bowls in different conditions (in Australia) which are not much helpful for spin but on the turning wickets he has taken some wickets.
“So I think it’ll be a good opportunity for him to play in Sri Lanka because here wickets will have turn, especially in Galle.
“(India’s Ravi) Ashwin I think is on the top at the moment (as the best current Test spinner).
“But still I think Nathan Lyon’s performance is very good, so he is one of the bowlers who are leading the attack in the Australian squad.”