Sri Lanka v Australia
Tuesday July 26, 2:30pm
Australia return to the test arena for the first time in five months when they take on Sri Lanka in the first of a three-test series, beginning in Pallekele on Tuesday.
It hasn’t been such a long break from test cricket for the hosts who in June concluded their own three-test series away to England in which they were soundly beaten 2-0 with only a wet day five in the third test saving them from a likely whitewash.
That was preceded by another 2-0 series loss away to New Zealand with the Lions clearly struggling to adapt after the retirements of legendary duo Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. However their form at home has been more promising, comfortably accounting for the West Indies last October after being edged out 2-1 in successive home series’ against India and Pakistan.
In the absence of Sangakkara and Jayawardene, the talented but inconsistent Dinesh Chandimal has become a key plank in Sri Lanka’s middle-order with a series of failures interspersed with brilliant knocks such as his 126 against England in Durham and 151 against the West Indies in Galle.
With the ball, the home side will continue to lean heavily on veteran spinner Rangana Herath who struggled for penetration against England and New Zealand, but was at his wily best on home soil against the Windies, picking up 15 wickets across two tests, including a match-winning 10/147 in the first test. Herath’s contribution will be all the more important given that the hosts will be without pacemen Dhammika Prasad and Dushmantha Chameera due to injury, while fellow quick Shaminda Eranga has been suspended by the ICC for an illegal action.
Australia will play their first test since they reclaimed the number one ranking by defeating New Zealand 2-0 in the Trans-Tasman Trophy in February. That series followed an earlier 2-0 victory over the Kiwis at home with a yet another 2-0 series win against an understrength West Indies outfit squeezed in between.
That means that since the Aussies relinquished the Ashes in humiliating fashion at Trent Bridge last August they are yet to be defeated in the longer form of the game. That run of form has been highlighted by prolific scoring from all of their batsmen, but in particular late bloomer Adam Voges who in the last three series’ has scored 969 runs at a barely believable average of 161.50, although Voges now faces the fresh challenge of his first series in the sub-continent.
For so long Australia’s unsung hero, off-spinner Nathan Lyon has finally started grabbing the headlines, finishing top wicket-taker in the last two series’ which has seen him leapfrog rival Herath in the ICC rankings. After a strong all-round performance in the warm-up match against a Sri Lankan XI, fellow tweaker Steve O’Keefe could join Lyon in the starting XI with Jackson Bird most likely to miss out. The conditions will also prove a new challenge for wicket-keeper Peter Nevill who up to this point in his test career has been tidy behind the stumps, but like Voges will be making his first foray into test cricket in Asia.
Pallekele International Cricket Stadium
There have been four test matches played in Pallekele with just the one result which came in the most recent fixture when Pakistan chased down a target of 377 in the fourth innings for the loss of only three wickets. Of the three prior draws only one was significantly impacted by the weather, however mother nature could play a part in this test with possible thunderstorms forecast throughout the match.
As evidenced by Pakistan’s epic fourth innings chase, batting tends to get easier at Pallekele as the test progresses, with the last three first innings scores failing to reach 300, while every single third innings total has exceeded 300.
- Sri Lanka have lost six of their last nine tests
- However at home Sri Lanka have won five of their last ten tests
- Sri Lanka have only drawn one of their past 17 tests
- Australia are undefeated in their last nine tests
- Australia have drawn only two of their past 15 tests and haven’t been involved in a draw away from home since 2013
- Steve Smith has top-scored in the first innings in three of Australia’s past eight away tests
Australia go into the match as strong favourites which is not all that surprising given the respective records of both sides. The draw is considered the next most likely outcome and a stalemate could be a runner given the history at the ground and possible weather interference, although the complete dearth of draws played out by both sides in recent times suggests we’d need a bigger price. Sri Lanka are rank outsiders and while they are a much stronger proposition at home, the inconsistency in their batting unit and depleted nature of their bowling attack is enough to warn me off backing them.
The Aussies are very close to a backable price, however there are just enough concerns – such as the weather and relative inexperience of the squad in the conditions – to warrant leaving them alone. However one player within the squad who is not unfamiliar or uncomfortable in the sub-continent is captain Steve Smith.
Smith’s career as a top-order batsman was launched with an impressive showing in the 2013 tour to India and he backed that up with another solid display in Australia’s ill-fated series defeat to Pakistan in the UAE, establishing his reputation as a particularly proficient player of spin. While the likes of Voges, Nevill and Joe Burns are yet to play test cricket in Asia, Smith averages an impressive 41.87 in the region and has top-scored in Australia’s first innings in three of their past eight tests away from home.
So while I may not quite have the sufficient faith in Australia to deliver the goods in the first test, I am more than happy to invest in the Australian skipper to once again prosper away from home soil and top score here.
BACK – Steve Smith Top Australia 1st Inns Bat at 4.00 or bigger for 1 unit.