x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Rot has begun to eat away at the Sri Lankan game

The Abu Dhabi Test match shows Tillakaratne Dilshan's men are in trouble in the long term, with ageing players, inexperienced bowlers and a lack of depth in their squad.

Kumar Sangakkara, in action against Pakistan on Thursday, seems to have lost his zest since resigning from the Sri Lankan captaincy.
Kumar Sangakkara, in action against Pakistan on Thursday, seems to have lost his zest since resigning from the Sri Lankan captaincy.

Sri Lanka find themselves in a strange kind of transition. They are still talked of openly as one of the top sides in world cricket. Every day of this Test one Pakistani player has come out and said that very thing.

But these are sporting platitudes because the definition of a top side in a format played by only 10 teams is never to be taken too seriously.

They have not won a single Test from their last 11, in 15 months. They are unlikely to win this current one.

If we are to take rankings as a guide - and the currency of the International Cricket Council rankings have been bulldozed into cricket's discourse - there is clear decline.

After beating New Zealand 2-0 at home in August 2009, they became the second-best side in the world. They remained so until November that year. For a chunk of last year they were third.

The New Zealand win was their last series triumph. They are now fifth and could fall one place farther if they lose 2-0 here. They have yet to win a Test in India, Australia or South Africa.

It has been a sly old slip, little-noticed and less-discussed. Sure, partly it is unavoidable, the detritus of sporting cycles.

Great players come, form a great side and then go, and suddenly everything looks wrong; that is just sporting life. Even Australia, of sustained sporting excellence, know this.

Losing men such as Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas - and Lasith Malinga, to an extent - has to hurt.

But matters should be more alarming in Sri Lanka's case. If it is agreed that bowling wins Tests, then replacing those three is some task.

But here there appears to have been much waste. Nuwan Kulasekera and Thilan Thushara were the architects of their Test series triumph against Pakistan two years ago. Where are they?

Dilhara Fernando long ago should have become a menacing strike bowler. Dhammika Prasad came, huffed and puffed, and then went quiet.

Ajantha Mendis's tricks have come undone by video.

This is a pool of substance. They are men who, at their moments, represented viable depth within Sri Lanka, to soften the blow when time called on Murali and Vaas. Only one of them is even in the squad currently.

If there was richness in batting some concern could be alleviated. But a kind of schizophrenia has gripped their batting.

In their last seven Tests, there have been five 300-plus totals, but they have been mixed in with scores of 82, 184, 105, 253, 174 and 197 here, the kind of totals that lose Tests.

Umar Gul's comments ahead of this Test that beyond Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan there is scope for damage to be inflicted reflect a new, truer level of confidence from bowlers taking on Sri Lanka.

Of the trio, Dilshan has just demoted himself to the middle order, a move borne of doubt, not confidence. And Sangakkara and Jayawardene have reached as strange a point in their individual careers as their country.

Both have been and done the captaincy, the apex of national representation. What have either left to achieve? And has not the captaincy taken just a little something from them, a little perhaps of their zest, their aura?

When such waste starts to accrue the finger tends to find itself pointing at the board. And if there is any board in the world Pakistan would not want to trade theirs with, it has to be Sri Lanka Cricket. It seems barely a board to begin with, forever built around interim committees that are not really interim so much as a permanent state of interim.

It is more politicised than even the Pakistan Cricket Board and the last administration was engulfed by claims of corruption and gross financial mismanagement.

All together, it makes this strange transition feel more like it could be the beginnings of a prolonged slump. And that is disturbing because a sport as confined as cricket can hardly afford another malfunctioning side.