Sri Lanka may have whitewashed South Africa in February, but their most recent Test series at home brought a 3-0 defeat at the hands of England. Though the hosts’ spinners were expected to dominate the England batsmen, the opposition top order batted aggressively, and found ways to put up daunting totals.
A lot has changed in Sri Lanka’s world since that series in November. Rangana Herath is no longer around. Dilruwan Perera, Sri Lanka’s other lead spinner in that series, is recovering from injury. Left-arm spinner Malinda Pushpakumara, a domestic veteran, is not even in the squad. The spin bowlers Dimuth Karunaratne has at his disposal, instead, are largely inexperienced – Akila Dananjaya, who has played only five Tests, and Lasith Embuldeniya, who has played only two, and none at home.
A captain who has been unafraid to change a long-standing strategy so far, Karunaratne suggested he would encourage his young bowlers to bowl tighter than they did against England.
“When we played against England, we kept attacking them too much with our bowlers, and we couldn’t stop the runs,” Karunaratne said ahead of the first Test against New Zealand. “But we have that experience with [the loss against] England now, and we have some new plans. In these conditions, rather than giving away a lot of runs, we need to dry them up. Even though we lost the toss in all three of those games, we still had a good chance, and I think this is where we made the mistake. If their batsmen attack us, we need to know how to deal with that.”
Drying runs up may be especially vital in the first Test, if, as Karunaratne suspects, the pitch is more batting-friendly than it usually is in Galle. Frequent rains have forced the ground staff to keep the pitch under covers in the lead-up to the Test, which means the surface may not start as dry as it generally might. If that is the case, Sri Lanka’s batting order, which should be strengthened by the return of Angelo Mathews, after he missed the South Africa Tests with injury, will be called upon to put up a substantial first-innings score.
“Angelo and Dinesh Chandimal are in this squad now, so there might be a few changes to the top order that played in South Africa,” Karunaratne said. “It’s different conditions as well here. We have to pick the best batsmen to counter spin. I think it will be a good wicket for the batsmen, but because we haven’t been able to see the pitch properly over the last few days, we can only make those decisions about selection tomorrow morning.”