Before we dwell on Sri Lanka’s good start to the series, let us count off all the ways in which it could all go south from here.
– Sri Lanka’s innings goes down in a whirl of outside edges and flying bails, before South Africa tear to 260 for 2 at the end of day 2, effectively infinity runs ahead.
– Incredibly, the batting goes okay, but while the top order is out in the middle, the bowlers suffer a torn-hamstring epidemic while in line for the dressing room coffee machine.
– The Sports Minister sacks the head coach in the middle of the Test and appoints the bus driver. (Don’t worry though, the driver has English county cricket experience.)
– The selectors sack the new captain and appoint a debutant.
If all this sounds a little fantastical or overly pessimistic it is because – strictly speaking – it is. But not by much. Sri Lanka may have ducked and weaved their way to 49 for 1, but remain thoroughly capable of being 150 all out, as scorecards from the preceding series in Australia will attest. During that Australia series, four first-choice Sri Lanka seamers also suffered injuries in the space of eight days, three of them serious injures, two of those hamstrings. The Sports Ministry, meanwhile, has been seriously considering removing coach Chandika Hathurusingha, only 13 months into his three-year contract. (Sri Lanka Cricket’s previous permanent head coach, Graham Ford, had also been elbowed out of his job 18 months after he had begun.) And in jettisoning captain Dinesh Chandimal, the selectors dropped a batsman who had averaged over 40 in the 2018 calendar year.
So, all things considered, Sri Lanka are in a space right now where anything could happen, the things that happen are usually bad, and those bad things are so emphatic in their badness that they drown out all the good. Kusal Mendis made over 1,000 Test runs in the last calendar year? Who cares? Sri Lanka have lost six Tests since they last won one. Angelo Mathews batted all day to save a game? So what? Next Test, another hamstring strain, and he’s unavailable again for two months.
It is tempting to take undue heart from an excellent day of seam bowling at Kingsmead – to see in an opposition scoreline of 235 all out the beginnings of a turnaround, slim wisps of a resurgence. After the three months this team has had (they haven’t won a match in any format since October), it would be a relief to make a hero out of young left-armer Vishwa Fernando, who in an outstanding display of disciplined inswing bowling, claimed 4 for 62.
But look closer. Look, for instance, at 27-year-old Vishwa’s professional career. He first made it into a Test squad way back in 2014, so Sri Lanka Cricket has long been aware of this bowler’s potential. He has been touted by no less than Chaminda Vaas as the best left-armer in the country, so any sane cricket board would feel itself duty-bound to ensure he develops.
But instead, Vishwa came into the Test side in Australia as an injury replacement almost inarguably under-cooked. In six first-class matches for Colombo Cricket Club since late November, he had bowled less than six overs per innings on average, because first-class pitches in Sri Lanka are so abminably dry that quicks are irrelevant for much of the game. In one of those innings he was not required at all. Think about that. Here is one of the finest fast-bowling talents in the country, playing for CCC – one of the biggest clubs – bowling less than six overs an innings, in the longest first-class competition that Sri Lanka host.
He is then expected to rock up to a Test after several senior teammates have fallen over in a heap, and deliver 15 to 20 overs a day (he bowled 17 today) against elite international batsmen who have cut their teeth against top-quality fast bowling, on tracks profoundly unlike those found at home. An unreasonably large percentage of the skill that envenomed Vishwa on day one, he had had to learn on the job, on tour with the Test team. There is also an unreasonably high chance, that like the other young quicks – Lahiru Kumara and Dushmantha Chameera – Vishwa may not be able to sustain a Test workload for long, because unlike other young quicks from around the world, his body is unaccustomed to delivering long spells on a weekly basis.
Vishwa himself spoke of the challenges that he must surmount as a young Sri Lankan quick, after stumps at Kingsmead. “There’s a big gap between the quality of our club cricket and Test cricket,” he said. “Clubs are trying to win matches, so they bowl spinners a lot. They don’t play fast bowlers much at all. The most I’d bowled this first-class season was 12 overs in an innings. But I had to play two Tests in Australia before this one, and I’ve been working with the bowling coach as well. So that’s the experience that helped me play today.”
SLC has been aware of this plague of poor pitches in the club tournament for years. Almost every season, each of the top 15 domestic wicket-takers are spinners – almost all of them finger spinners. And yet, because ruffling too many feathers with the clubs will dent their chances in the next board election, they have been happy to nurture a disease. It is not merely that pitches have failed to improve, they could be getting worse, year -on-year.
“Since I’ve been playing, there have been fewer and fewer fast bowlers in first-class cricket every season,” said Vishwa. “I don’t know why that is.”
The problem with domestic pitches is merely one of the multitude of ailments that have led Sri Lankan cricket to its current state. There is also the ever-growing number of first-class clubs, the endless political interference, and the egotism that drives every new sports minister and selection committee to announce their arrival with wholesale changes.
It is important to take stock of Sri Lankan cricket’s decline even on days such as this, because it is precisely on the good days that administrators and politicians who have been architects of this fall make themselves endlessly visible, via press conferences or media appearances, forever attempting to siphon off credit for themselves. (SLC’s election is in a few weeks. The circus has begun.) It is vital to acknowledge that whatever Vishwa achieved in Kingsmead, he did so in spite of a domestic system that is unequivocally stacked against him. He had one of the best top orders in the world in serious trouble, bowled a magical delivery that connived through the gate, and broke crucial stands late in the day, none of which are things he had any business doing.