x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Sri Lanka cricket is competitive, but not yet complete

Despite the recent heroics of Sangakkara and Jayawardene in Abu Dhabi, the greatest of all Sri Lankan cricketers is yet to arrive. This sounds less refined and harsher than it is meant to be.

The greatest of all Sri Lankan cricketers is yet to arrive. This sounds less refined and harsher than it is meant to be.

All due respect, and more, must be given to Muttiah Muralitharan, their greatest cricketer yet, and to Arjuna Ranatunga, who turned them into winning men.

And to others such as Duleep Mendis, Aravinda de Silva, Sanath Jayasuriya and Chaminda Vaas. They should be held in the highest regard.

But Sri Lanka's finest ever player will be the one who forms the heartbeat of a side, or from whose inspiration thereafter, they become a true threat outside - and not just competitive as they currently are - in conditions they are not used to.

Far from winning a Test series in Australia, South Africa and India, to name three of Test cricket's most trying environments, Sri Lanka have yet to even win a Test there.

In 34 Tests in the three lands, they have lost 24. They have managed to draw only three out of 14 Tests there in the last decade, when they have been arguably at their strongest.

Six of the 11 Tests lost have been by an innings, about as comprehensive an indicator of Test feebleness as is possible. Few have been close.

It is a miserable record.

And though they have been better in England, they have yet to win a Test series that constitutes more than one Test there.

It is this wrong, this cross against the progress of Sri Lanka, that should be what men such as Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene - two more in the running surely in that list of greats - measure their final contributions against.

But both are now closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. It is unlikely they will have a realistic chance of being able to correct this, especially with the state the current side is in.

It is also because, regrettably and much to their own considerable irritation, the pair have hardly had opportunity to put it right.

Sri Lanka have only ever played 10 Tests in Australia and seven in South Africa; Sangakkara has played eight and Jaywardene nine in those countries.

Both have solid, if unspectacular numbers in the three countries, and nearly identical; each has two hundreds, their early-40s averages are separated by less than a run. But not one win? It is a considerable asterisk to tag on to the end of a career.

Is this making too much of it? Sangakkara - to pick the younger by a few months from the two - is trotting up some remarkable figures.

His double hundred this weekend in Abu Dhabi was his eighth, to leave him behind only Don Bradman and Brian Lara. It was his 11th century (out of 26) in the second innings. Fifteen of the hundreds have led to Sri Lankan wins.

This is an influential body of work, even if Peter Roebuck's clear-headed observation of his batting remains: "At times he resembles a businessman going about his duties - the focus on the bottom line, reckless risks disdained."

He kept wickets too and few in this post-Adam Gilchrist era have been as adept at both. Jayawardene has also had a big influence (and even better to watch).

Both were respected captains, Jayawardene intuitive, Sangakkara calculating. And it is their voices, articulate and reasoned, that are always sought out from the country.

But sometimes too much has been made of their eloquence.

It has allowed their inability to right this wrong to slip by unnoticed. Their primary task, after all, is to lead or help their side win Tests, something they - and Murali, Ranatunga, Vaas, De Silva and all the others - have failed to do in the toughest places Test cricket takes you to.