Sri Lanka’s cricket team celebrate after winning the Second Test cricket match between Pakistan and Sri Lanka at Dubai International Cricket Ground in Dubai on October 10, 2017. (Karim Sahib / AFP)
Bruised and battered repeatedly in 2017, there was a sigh of relief in the faces of Sri Lankan cricketers earlier this week as they completed a historic series-win here in UAE. Watching Sri Lankan cricket has been never so painful as the team hit new lows this year having been whitewashed by India and South Africa and then losing to Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.
Beating Pakistan has been a tedious task. They had not lost a home series in the last ten years and had never lost a Test series in UAE since the gulf became their adopted home seven years ago. The last man to beat Pakistan at home was Graeme Smith as the South Africans won 1-0 in 2007 in Inzamam-ul-Haq’s farewell series.
Since then, some top captains had come to UAE including those like Michael Clarke, Alastair Cook and Brendon McCullum, but failed to a win a series here.
Most teams struggle with the heat in UAE. On day two of the second Test in Dubai, with Sri Lanka batting, the temperature rose to 41 degrees Celsius. The conditions were testing and the players’ fitness, an area that they have been working extremely hard on in recent times, counted.
Dimuth Karunaratne richly deserves the Player of the Series award. This year he has been Sri Lanka’s best batsman in Test cricket having accumulated over 900 runs. Only Hashim Amla and Dean Elgar have scored more than him in 2017.
His nine-and-half-hour marathon in the scorching heat of Dubai was a treat to watch. What Dimuth’s batting has done is to ease the pressure off other senior players like Dinesh Chandimal and Angelo Mathews.
Dimuth has done a few alterations to his technique rooting out a few glitches off his game. Instead of tapping the bat as the bowler ran in, he has now adopted an upright stance which allows him to keep an eye on the ball. He still is troubled by the left-arm quicks when they bring the ball in. He seems to be susceptible when the left-armers bring the ball in, like in Dubai where in both innings he was dismissed dragging onto the stumps to Wahab Riaz.
Another area he needs to work on is his ‘90s play’. In the last three months he has been dismissed twice in the 90s and once in 190s. He seems to slow down as he reaches the milestone and a change of mindset could help him to have a better conversion rate.
Dinesh Chandimal captained the side brilliantly. In recent Tests against Pakistan, Sri Lanka have lost games that they should have never lost due to over cautiousness. During the last tour to UAE in 2013, they had an opportunity to win the series going into the final Test in Sharjah 1-0 up. But Sri Lanka tried to go for a draw and earn a 1-0 win and that backfired. The series was leveled.
Chandimal was positive with attacking field placing and richly deserved the series win. His unbeaten 155 set up the game in Abu Dhabi as he batted for over nine hours. At the age of 27, Chandimal has already scored nine Test hundreds and he should finish with an impressive record.
Veteran Rangana Herath finished the series with 16 wickets and in the process went onto complete 400 Test wickets becoming the first Sri Lankan to achieve the milestone and first left-arm spinner ever. The way he defended 136 runs in Abu Dhabi was a treat to watch. Herath is neither a big spinner of the ball nor has many variations. But why he is so effective is that he is a fine thinker of the game.
In the first innings in Abu Dhabi, Hasan Ali had helped Pakistan to take a first-innings lead with a few meaty blows. In the second essay, with so little to defend, allowing Hasan get away with things, would have been the recipe for disaster.
Herath, when bowling to Hasan, detected that he had got a strong bottom hand as most of his boundaries in the first-innings cleared the rope easily. So he went over the wicket to the right-hander, pitched one outside leg. The batsman attempted a sweep shot, not his forte, and was bowled round his legs.
Off-spinner Dirlruwan Perera too had a fine series and finished with 12 wickets. Pakistan came well-prepared to Herath for the second Test, but played into Dilruwan’s hands as he went onto claim eight wickets in Dubai including a five-wicket haul in the second-innings.
The national team has been often criticised for neglecting fielding during training. But on this tour, they worked extremely hard at improving fielding and it was great to see even fast bowlers diving to cut off boundaries.
Fitness and discipline are other areas that the team management has demanded and there are already some impressive results.
Bigger challenges are awaiting Sri Lanka. Pakistan were ranked number-six when the series began and it was their first series in the post Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan era.
The real challenge is when Sri Lanka tour India later this year against a rampant side captained by Virat Kohli. Importantly, Sri Lanka should have all their injured players –Mathews, Asela Gunaratne and Kusal Janith Perera – fit for that series. Interesting times are ahead.