Sunday, 28 December 2014

Cometh the hour; Cometh the man

Sri Lanka vs New Zealand, 1st Test, Day 3, Christchurch

Dimuth Karunaratne averages 30 in Test cricket. It is not an average between a bunch of centuries and half centuries and a series of single digit scores. It is an average of a numerous 30s, a seldom half century and a few low scores. An average doesn't necessarily give an idea how many runs a batsman will score in a particular innings, but for Dimuth it does. He almost always get a start, gets to 30. He bats like he's in the form of his life, middling it off the pads and off the hips, cutting and square driving like a hundred is only a few deliveries away. And just when you feel like no one's going to stop him, he gets out. But when ever he does, he gives you the feeling that one of these days, he's going to dig in, hold his composure and go on to make a big hundred. Today was that day.

At the start of the 3rd day in Christchurch, Sri Lanka were 84 for no loss, following on, and still trailing New Zealand's first innings score by 219 runs. The ball was 35 overs old, the atmosphere was cloudy and overcast, and Trent Boult and Tim Southee were running in from either end fully charged. Kaushal Silva got a brute that nipped away from him at chest height, to which he got a feather of an edge. The world's #1 Test batsman at the moment could only manage one run, before he too nicked one behind to the keeper. In a matter of minutes after the start, Sri Lanka were 2 down for 94. An innings defeat loomed in the distance, with 3 days of cricket still left to play. That's when Dimuth Karunaratne decided to play the innings of his life, yet.

He left the ball on line. Anything along the fourth stump line was left for the keeper to collect. Anything on the pads, were whipped through midwicket for runs. When teased with width outside off, on a length and on the full, he calmly refused. Anything short and wide, he latched on for boundaries. The balls that attacked the stumps, he defended back to the bowler. He played as good as any Lara or Tendulkar could have played on a seaming pitch. He stonewalled like any Dravid or Du Plessis ever did. In a time when Sri Lanka have struggled to find openers who could play long innings, when they have run out of options for batsmen who have the temperament to bat for long periods under pressure, when batsman who can dig deep and bat out draws are only seen on television, when the Marvan Atapattus, the Asanka Gurusinghes and the Thilan Samaraweeras seemed to have been a thing of the past, Dimuth Karunaratne stepped up to the plate and delivered a knock that resurrected the old gritty Sri Lankan Test batsman. A knock that the team was crying out for, given the situation. By the time he was cleaned up by a peach of a delivery by Boult, he had spent over 8 hours at the crease, faced 363 balls, batted across four sessions and amassed 152 runs that ensured Sri Lanka wouldn't lose by an innings in the space of 3 days. Dimuth Karunaratne had arrived.

Dimuth Karunaratne's maiden Test hundred could not have come at a better time,
in terms of the context of the game, and the need of another solid opening batsman for Sri Lanka.

He was aptly supported first by Thirimanne, who batted with the sort of calmness and serenity associated with Sangakkara. Although he seems to have a problem getting past the 20s, his knock today was far more important than the runs. He too blocked away over a 100 deliveries, before he again fished at one he should have left alone, for the second time in the game. Angelo Mathews came in and batted like he can only be dismissed by suicide, like in the first innings. Mathews isn't the most skillful batsman in the Sri Lankan team. He's not even in the top 3 in that list. But he compensates for his limited skill with an extremely good temperament, the sort of mental toughness that made players like Steve Waugh and Graeme Smith in to world class cricketers even with limited technical ability. He continues to bat on, as Sri Lanka sit unstably on 295/5, still trailing by 10 runs, with only PJ to come in next from the batsmen.

Sri Lanka should have gone to stumps only 4 down though, all four of which were earned by the New Zealand bowlers. Kaushal and Sanga got two gems early on in the day, and Dimuth probably got the ball of the match. Thirimanne did get out chasing a wild one, but it was a crafty bowling change by McCullum to bring on Neesham at that stage that brought the wicket. The only wicket that was gifted was the one of Dickwella. Dickwella undoubtedly is one of the most talented and flamboyant young batsmen in the Sri Lankan circuit at the moment, but the reasons to play him as a specialist Test batsmen is a baffling one, specially when Dinesh Chandimal is warming the bench. A Test number 6 needs to be a batsman prepared to bat for long durations, in energy sapping conditions, partly supporting a senior top order batsman, or farming the strike with the tail. Dickwella is neither. If Sri Lanka are to seriously challenge foreign bowling line ups, they should be looking for a batsman in the mold of Mike Hussey, Paul Collingwood or  Faf Du Plessis, who have both the skill and the mental capacity to bat under pressure. For such a criteria, picking between Dickwella and Chandimal should be a no-brainer.

Although most would have expected Sri Lanka to fold and lose by an innings, and although one good spell from either end is all it takes for this game to be wrapped up during the first hour tomorrow, Sri Lanka have already done them selves proud by taking the game in to the 4th day. If Mathews can replicate what he did in Headingley earlier this year, and the likes of Kaushal, PJ, Dhammika and Eranga can bat around him, by taking session by session, Sri Lanka can still set up a significant 4th innings chase. If the three overs he faced were any indication of his technique, Tharindu Kaushal should be an able partner to Mathews for a few useful runs tomorrow. PJ is experienced and tough, and he will put up a fight before he goes down. Dhammika Prasad used to be his school's opening batsman and Shaminda Eranga has a first class hundred to his name. Sri Lanka have fought well for 4 sessions so far, and a couple more from here and they will feel they can take enough momentum from this game in to Wellington to force a win there. Sri Lanka do not have to win this game to come out of it proud, they do not even have to draw. They have already shown their fighting spirit that they continued to show through out the year, and what ever they do from here will only enhance it. But either of the former results, would be far more pleasing. 

Regardless of that result, the confidence gained by a hundred that might spark a long illustrious career for one Dimuth Karunaratne is priceless for the future of Sri Lanka cricket. In their hour of need, he was hero that Sri Lanka deserved.

Another long, hard grind awaits,
Until then,

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Moving on the Fast Lane

Sri Lanka vs New Zealand, 1st Test, Day 2, Christchurch

Sri Lankan private buses are known for causing road rage in the busy streets of Colombo, usually moving at around 15-20kmph over the speed limit, overtaking on the wrong side, and shoving passengers in with Sardine-can-like precision. None more so than the 138. Any Sri Lankan who's lived in Colombo even for a brief period knows the shenanigans of the 138 drivers. You may own a Ferrari or an Aston Martin, but you will never travel the Colombo streets on a busy day as fast as a Leyland 138 bus would. It is a ride on the fast lane with movement and pace almost identical to that what Boult and Southee produced at Christchurch today. It is only fitting that Sri Lanka were bowled out for that very magic number. That is exactly what they must have felt like; vomitish, dizzy passengers on a fast, unstoppable, rowdy 138 during the peak hours of a busy Colombo day.

Day two at the Hagley Oval was a lot less sunnier than the first, giving ample moisture to the pitch, making it more conducive to fast, swing bowling. It also didn't help that Trent Boult and Tim Southee were much more disciplined with their lines and lengths, forcing the batsman to keep trying to poke at the ball. Five batsmen were snared by the outswing, four of them in the slips, and one leading edge to cover. Two fell to the one coming in, LBW. The other three went down slogging. Sri Lanka looked out of place. Out of character. And out of options. Although Mathews and Thirimanne briefly looked like they would steer Sri Lanka past the follow on mark, once the New Zealand bowlers started hitting the right lengths again, it was only a matter of time until they found the edge. Sri Lanka were humiliated. They might have felt in hindsight that they should have let New Zealand tail bat for the first hour of the day before they wrapped up the innings. Such desperate tactics are never too far away when you are being mauled over. We've all thought how we should have waited for the CTB, while being thrown around sweaty bodies in a 138.

Sri Lanka folded. In just 42 overs, they let go of the reputation they had earned over a period of 12 months as fighters down the drain. Angelo Mathews held on to one end, as he has done so many times this year, but it just wasn't enough. He's usually partnered by either Sanga or Mahela, and sometimes even both for some vital runs in the middle order which would have probably put Sri Lanka past the follow on mark, but Mahela is no more, and Sanga had a rare off day. Dimuth and Kaushal got the worst end of the stick, but they could have done at least a bit better at judging what to leave. The Thirimanne of old wouldn't have lasted six balls in such conditions, given his horrid show in England, but he seems to save sorted his issues with the moving ball, and looked comfortable for a while before he too poked at one he shouldn't have. But then again, haven't we all. PJ put up a fight, as he usually does, but at 60/5 it was too much to ask from him to salvage anything other than just double figures. Dickwella probably played his last game of the series, unless he comes up with something magical in the 2nd innings.

Dimuth Karunaratne with the amount of ability he possesses is destined for greatness.
But so were Vinod Kambli, Mark Ramprakash and Ramnaresh Sarwan.
Will this be his big break?

And then they were asked to follow on. Dimuth played magnificently off his pads and off the hips, cut anything too wide, and left anything along the corridor, and ran well between wickets. Kaushal, as per usual, left the ball on length and pounced on anything that was too full. Gaps started to show, and the runs started to flow. Sri Lanka were 84/0 after batting out 35 overs, only 7 short of what took them to be bowled out on the first innings. The track looked placid and the New Zealand bowlers looked dull. Sri Lanka were putting up a fight and everything was right with the world again.

Although Kaushal is by far the superior of the two in terms of temperament, Dimuth holds the edge when it comes to stroke play. He is in the mold of the Mahelas and the Marvans; not the most consistent, yet pleasing on the eyes. As he has done so throughout his career, he has earned him self a start and looks good for a big one, which although he always throws away. A big hundred away from Sri Lanka, in seaming conditions might just what he needs to kick start his career, just as Marvan did in Mohali 1997, and Mahela in a rank turner at Galle in 1998, both being the knocks that defined their respective careers and had never looked back since then. Kaushal is more of a Sanga. Patient and technical. Dependable and consistent. If they can hold off the pace barrage for the morning hour of tomorrow's play, Sri Lanka just might leave Christchurch with a loss, but a little bit of pride. A loss here would indeed spoil a splendid year for them, but posting a fighting 3rd innings score after being forced to follow on, specially if they could make New Zealand bat again for a significant amount of runs and make them earn their win, might not be too bad of a final entry for an year of wonder. Just as the 138 eases down and becomes a very relaxed ride to Maharagama after the hours of 6pm, Sri Lanka have settled in to a groove, and need to keep being patient. The ride gets uncomfortable every now and then, but if they are willing to hold on tight, it will ultimately get them to their destination unharmed.

Sri Lanka may not get out of this alive. But they should die a proud, fighting death; a Shakespearean ending to what was an amazing year of cricket for them. 

All to play for tomorrow then,

Friday, 26 December 2014

One Man Army; the unaccountable variable

Sri Lanka vs New Zealand, 1st Test, Day 1, Christchurch

In the 1985 remake of the famous American patriotic action movie "Invasion USA", a carefully planned invasion of the south eastern coast of USA is carried out by a bunch of organized Cuban communist guerrillas. They hoodwink the US Coast Guard, the police and even the FBI to arrive in Miami and take over the area in a matter of hours. The United States is forced to hand over the case to the CIA and bring in the national guard to Miami to control the situation. All is going well for the guerrillas. But even with all their planning, and careful calculations, they had not accounted for one single human being and the impact he would have on the whole invasion; Chuck Norris. Chuck Norris single-handedly finds the root of the operation and eliminates it and decimates most of the invading forces, and manages to stop the invasion. The guerrillas don't do to much wrong. Their plans are effective and efficient. If not for the one man army of Chuck Norris, their invasion would have been quite a successful one. But one man can make so much difference. 

On a sunny beautiful morning in Christchurch, where test cricket had returned after a lapse of 8 years, Sri Lanka learnt this lesson the hard way. They had carefully planned not to give width outside off to the openers Latham and Rutherford, and had them weeded out before lunch. They pressured Ross Taylor in to quick singles and had him run out. They dried the in form Kane Williamson of the strike and got him bowled through the gate. They bowled in good areas more often than not. They carried out their plans. But they had failed to account for one man; Brendon McCullum. McCullum, as if he was possessed by the ghost of Chuck Norris (and yes, Chuck Norris has a ghost even though he is not dead), hammered the Sri Lankan bowlers to all parts of the ground. Good length balls, short of the length balls with awkward bounce, balls that spun away from him and in to him, sometimes with the turn sometimes against, he attacked every good ball and every bad ball and completely single handedly annihilated any plans of a Sri Lankan invasion on the shores of Christchurch. 

By the time he was done, McCullum had made 195 runs off 134 deliveries. At one stage, just across the trans-Tasman, Australia had faced 60 overs for 175 runs. At the same time, in the same amount of overs, New Zealand were on 375. McCullum had wiped the floor with the Sri Lankan bowlers, and then had creamed them, marmalized them, and took them to the cleaners to have them washed up to be served again after tea. Angelo Mathews had to resort to Lahiru Thirimanne to stem the flow of runs. Thirimanne doesn't even bowl to his brother in his back yard, let alone for his national test team. Brendon McCullum did a Chuck Norris, and when someone does a Chuck Norris, there's nothing much you can do to stop them.

Oh the countless puns of Sri Lankan fast bowlers slipping up in New Zealand
But if you exclude that innings from the team total, imagine it never happened, as Tharindu Kaushal will be telling him self in his hotel room at this very moment, New Zealand's scorecard would read 234/7, and you could say that Sri Lanka have done fairly well for a first day of a tour. Even if McCullum had whisked 60 runs for himself, the score still would have stood at 294/7, which is still impressive for a bowling attack that isn't too intimidating. Apart from McCullum, Sri Lanka have bowled out the other 7 batsman for 234 runs at 32 runs per wicket, which is far from disastrous. McCullum just happened. Just like Gayle's haywire 333 at Galle, or Sehwag's 201 at the same venue, it just happened. No Murali or Warne or Donald or Akram would have been able to stop what happened today from happening. All you can do is to peg away at the batsman at the other end, and Sri Lanka have done just that. The last thing you need after a marathon innings like that is for the guy at the other end to score a 100 from 200 balls, and bat with the tail and take the total past 600. In that sense, Sri Lanka have still not let the game slip through their fingers, although Kumar Sangakkara tried extremely hard to make it that way. He was probably just missing Mahela. 

In the midst of the carnage, Sri Lanka also sneaked in two surprise selections. The less obvious one was Tharindu Kaushal, as Dilruwan Perera is still learning how to turn a door knob, and soon will be able to start to learn how to turn a red cricket ball. Kaushal was rather impressive and bowled a lot better than 159/1 suggests. Relaxed run up, good wristy, not-so-dodgy action, great loop through the air and dip, he seemed fit for the international stage. If he could work on his Dilhara Fernando syndrome and also try not to give the ball too much air so much so that it doesn't even land before it reaches the batsmen, he might just be an able partner to Herath, specially for home tests. The pace trio of Lakmal, Eranga and Dhammika bowled well too, Lakmal being the pick of the bowlers although he was taken apart for 26 runs in one over by McCullum. Dhammika bowled a few peaches while Eranga stuck to good lines and lengths, again with spoilt figures thanks to Mr.BigMac. The second surprise selection was Dickwella, ahead of Chandimal. But to be fair, Dickwella had done enough in the opportunity he was given against South Africa to retain his place. How he goes about handling Boult and Southee tomorrow or when ever he bats, will be the real test of his character.

At the end of day's play Sri Lanka have knocked over all the specialized batsmen in the New Zealand team, and after winning the toss and putting New Zealand in, that should be pretty pleasing. They will have to come back tomorrow morning and gun down the hard hitting tail of Southee, Boult and Craig and bat out the next 4 or possibly 5 sessions. Sri Lanka should not just bat for runs, they should also bat for time. They cannot leave New Zealand too much time to set them a tough 4th innings target with enough overs to bowl them out. The wicket looks extremely good for batting, as it turns out the pitch was only as green as a member of the UNP just before crossing over to the government, and therefore Sri Lanka should still feel that all is not lost, for there are days like this when one single human being can ruin and destroy well organized operations and completely dispose of careful plans and precise calculations. Today was McCullum's day. 

Until tomorrow,

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Year of the Carnivore

Sri Lanka vs New Zealand, 1st Test, Christchurch 

Prior to 2014, Sri Lanka had only won two Test series away from the sub-continent; New Zealand in 1995 and England (One-off Series) in 1998. They had only won ONE world cup, the famous win in 1996. Apart from a few Tests here and there, drawing series in West Indies, Pakistan, and England, a sole test win in South Africa, and a gazillion world cup finals, Sri Lanka had not impressed the international cricketing arena to the extent they could have since the turn of the century. They had missed the ruthlessness to finish off sides, or tournaments; for that matter, and had been labelled the perennial Bridesmaids of cricket. They were omnivores; hunting, but more often than not, being hunted.

That was until in 2014, which started with Angelo Mathews re-surging the Test team to rally around him to carry them to a win on the 4th of January in the UAE. But in typical Sri Lankan style, he gave away the advantage gained by the 1-0 lead by losing the next test with shamefully negative cricket. Going from 1-0, to 1-1 was something Sri Lankan fans were more than uses to, therefore it hadn't rung any alarms at that point. Soon, all that was about to change.

In a tournament where Sri Lanka had been in every final apart from the 2012 edition, Sri Lanka defeated Pakistan in the final to win their first Asia Cup since 2008. Then in even more dramatic and emotional fashion, they bid farewell to their greatest cricketing duo of all time; Sanga and Mahela in the T20 format, by winning the 2014 World T20. A world title had eluded them for a period of 7 years between 2007 and 2014, where they had taken part in 4 world cup Finals. Then they traveled to England, where they huffed and puffed with the bat and ball and sometimes even with the DRS to crawl to a draw at Lord's, and then came back with the flashing blade of Angelo Mathews and the screaming, bulging eyes of Dhammika Prasad, and one final, carefully placed short square leg and a perfectly directed bouncer from Shaminda Eranga to conjure up a win at Headingley.

Sri Lanka had transformed, from being the hard working mediocre team that can surprise you every now and then, to the ruthless, efficient unit that can win tournaments consistently. They had gone from triers, to achievers. From the hunted, to the hunter. When ever they were ruthless, they had won. When they had dominated, they had not let the advantage slip. May it be Thirimanne's twin centuries at the Asia Cup, or Herath bowling out New Zealand with almost wizardly craftsmanship at the WorldT20, or Angelo Mathews hitting back to back centuries in England, the one in Headingley perhaps the most influential and career defining century by a Sri Lankan in a Test, or even Dinesh Chandimal and Suranga Lakmal coming back in to the side and helping to topple England at home, the Sri Lanka of 2014 had transformed itself into a team that churns out wins, not just "competitive performances". 

After the Asia Cup, World T20, and then Headingley,
Sri Lanka Cricket has turned around from being the team that"Should have won"
to "The winning team"!
They did have their fair share of losses. Sri Lanka's 2014 was not a complete world domination. Not even close. When ever they had not taken their best team on a tour, or had played under-par cricket, they were revised of the lesson they had learnt so well; Hunt, or be hunted. AB De Villiers, Dale Steyn and South Africa along with Rohit-264-Sharma and India had shown them that the team that is willing to be ruthless will be the team that is more likely to win. From a Sri Lankan perspective, 2014 was the year they had metamorphed into a world beating unit. A ruthless team, which will beat you down given the slightest opening. It was the year they went from being the hunted, to the hunter. It was their Year of the Carnivore.

Come 26th of December, Sri Lanka will write their final journal entry for 2014, and they would like that entry to be a reflection of what they have achieved in the past 12 months. New Zealand probably are the toughest opponents they face this year, in the toughest conditions. The pitch at the new Christchurch ground looks greener than the vegetable station at a Green Earth organic product store. New Zealand's last visitors, India and West Indies, were both beaten comprehensively, with the aid of such wickets and bowlers like Southee, Boult, and Wagner who know how to exploit those wickets to extract victories from them. Sri Lanka know all too well about what Southee and Boult can do. With some coaching tips from Chaminda Vaas, the then rookie duo of Boult and Southee bowled New Zealand to a famous test victory in Sri Lanka only last year.

But a lot has happened since then. Lead by Angelo Mathews, Sri Lanka has become a tougher, stronger travelling team, with more venom in their pace attack than ever before. They have the world's best test batsman and the best test all-rounder, and the highest test wicket taker of the year. Above all, they have gained the confidence and the attitude needed to be a dominating side in 5 day cricket, and Christchurch provides the perfect audience for them to prove to the world that England-2014, Asia Cup-2014 and the WorldT20-2014 were not flukes, that 2014 all together was not a series of co-incidences. For it is their Year of the Carnivore, and this is the time to be ruthless and merciless.

On a different non-cricketing note, the Year of the Carnivore was a budget sex-comedy that introduced the mother from "How I met your Mother", Cristin Milioti to the silver screen in 2009. Her acting career had never been the same since then. And five years later, Sri Lanka's 2014 could well have been defined as a budget-sex-comedy that introduced Angelo Mathews to the Test Cricketing World, and changed the course of Sri Lanka's cricket in a significantly positive direction. The credits have started to roll on 2014 and there's one last post-credits scene to be watched.

Until the post-credit scene begins tomorrow,