As England prepare for their two-match Test series with Sri Lanka this month, we take stock of how the hosts have evolved since their 3-0 series defeat to the English in November 2018.
Since Sri Lanka were whitewashed at home by England more than two years ago, they’ve won four out of their 14 Tests, losing seven and drawing the rest.
In the immediate aftermath of that 3-0 series defeat there were further losses away from home to New Zealand and Australia, but then came an incredible series win in South Africa, with Kusal Perera playing one of the greatest Test innings of all time to script an incredible one-wicket win in Durban, before an eight-wicket win followed in the second Test.
Since then there’s been a 1-1 draw at home to New Zealand, a 1-0 defeat to Pakistan, a 1-0 win over Zimbabwe and, most recently, a crushing 2-0 series defeat to the Proteas. The revenge of the South Africans came as both sides returned to Test cricket for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic brought international cricket to a halt.
The pace factor
Interestingly, the drawn series against the Black Caps – which came all the way back in August 2019 – is the only Test series Sri Lanka have played at home since their defeat to England. Furthermore, with all of their away series in that period taking place away from spin-friendly conditions in Asia, it’s probably of little surprise that it’s their quicks that have been taking centre stage of late. Of the four Sri Lanka bowlers to have taken 28 or more Test wickets since the start of December 2018, three of them are seamers: Suranga Lakmal (30 wickets @ 23.83), Vishwa Fernando (28 @ 32.92) and Lahiru Kumara (28 @ 38.53).
With Lakmal’s recent numbers in mind – and the fact that he returned first-innings figures of 4-29 in the win over New Zealand in 2019 – the hosts will certainly be hoping he’s ready for the England series after a hamstring problem led to his absence in South Africa.
Moving on from Rangana Herath
Nonetheless, as always, spinning conditions are expected in Sri Lanka and and the 2018 series marked a major break for the hosts in that department: Test cricket’s most prolific left-armer ever, Rangana Herath, bowed out of internationals after defeat in Galle.
A young spinner in Herath’s mould has emerged in the form of Lasith Embuldeniya, who has 30 wickets at 39.80 and played a key role on debut with six wickets in the Durban win over South Africa. Nonetheless, wrist-spinner Wanindu Hasaranga was Sri Lanka’s main spin option in the series against South Africa just gone and is a capable batsman too; the 23-year-old has a first-class batting average of 41.85 and a hit a half-century on Test debut.
Where things get interesting is in investigating the fortunes of Sri Lanka’s two best bowlers in the 3-0 defeat to England. Dilruwan Perera, the off-spinner who took 22 wickets that series to top the charts, has averaged 98 with the ball in seven Tests since, struggling desperately away from home. He is in the squad for the upcoming Tests, however.
Akila Dananjaya, on the other hand, isn’t; the mystery tweaker took 10 wickets in the England series and a five-for in the Test win over New Zealand but was banned from international cricket for a year in September 2019 after his action was deemed illegal.
Dwindling returns from star batsmen
Batting primarily in overseas conditions has led to middling returns for most of Sri Lanka’s premier batsmen over the last couple of years. From the start of October 2017 through to the end of the November 2018, Dimuth Karunaratne, Kusal Mendis and Dinesh Chandimal – Sri Lanka’s three leading run-scorers in that period – averaged 47.05 (11 Tests), 39.42 (11) and 50.50 (9) with the bat, respectively. Since then Karunaratne, who took on the captaincy in 2019, and Mendis have both averaged 33 in 14 Tests while Chandimal’s struggles have been even more apparent; he has averaged 22.21 from nine Tests. The good news is that Karunaratne will enter the series on the back of a century in South Africa, while Chandimal’s 85 in the Boxing Day Test was his highest score since June 2018.
Sri Lanka’s standout batsman in the last two years has been Angelo Mathews, who has averaged 76.11 after the England series and and hit tons in New Zealand and Zimbabwe, though he missed the most recent South Africa series with injury. The 33-year-old looks set to return for the England Tests, which will be a massive boost.