THE lost third Test last week provides local critics with much fodder to chastise Kumar Sangakkara’s leadership. And they have. Their indignation though, is to be expected, as it isn’t easy to live down the regret of having to share a series that pretty much was in the pocket up until the final day.
The first Test was secured by a handsome 10 wickets despite rain dissolving a day’s play; a massive 600-plus first innings total ensured the second Test could not be lost. The third was a different kettle of fish: by day three both first innings were done and dusted, 11 runs separating the teams; it could’ve gone either way – and it went India’s.
Though Sri Lanka eventually conceded the final Test, it is fair to say they weren’t far from victory themselves, a win which would’ve given them the series 2/0 than share it 1/1. With India 62/4 early on the final morning, pursuing 258 on a dusty pitch, Sri Lanka had their chances. So it’s not as if Sri Lanka threw it away, as the tone and tenor of some overcritical reviews might suggest.
But when a Test runs as close as the third did, and the team of your persuasion loses out, emotions sometimes do cloud reason. Apart from the disappointment of the failure to clinch the series outright, there were other reasons why a shared series might’ve enflamed emotions. The two previous home series against India, in 2001 and 2008, had been won, 2/1, and a triumph this time round would’ve significantly hardened the psychological advantage held over India in future home series.
As well, it’s not always that a home team gets lucky with toss in all of the series’ Tests, and to have not converted that extraordinary stroke of luck to a series-win is obviously very hurting. More so, as Sri Lanka has not lost nine home series in which they had won the toss. Also disappointing is that the Indians squared the series on a ground where Sri Lanka had not lost since 1994; among the many triumphs at the P Sara included the country’s historic first ever Test win, over India. So, given the emotional baggage loaded on this series, deeper disappointment was always going to be the obvious sequential to the third Test defeat.
There will no doubt be a lot of finger pointing, at captain, selectors, players, administrators… just about everybody associated with the team, as heart supersedes the head. So, a cold shower is recommended before revisiting the series, especially the third Test. First though, a reminder: the opponent was not Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, but the world’s no.1 ranked nation India – and sharing a series with the champions is no mean achievement.
The Indian attack admittedly was depleted, without Zaheer Khan and Shreeshanth, their first and third choice quick bowlers, as well as an ailing Harbajan, their no.1 spinner, being available for just one of the three Tests. But there was no such depletion in the Indians’ batting. That Yuvraj was left out of the third Test eleven is eloquent evidence of the tremendous batting strength that was available to the visitors. To cope with a line up including Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman is headache enough. Add to that list, skipper Dhoni and Yuvraj/or Raina, and the headache becomes a nightmare.
That our own batting performances didn’t suffer in comparison to those of the world no.1 throughout the series, bar perhaps on the final day, is, unfortunately, a fact that gets shadowed by the disappointment of losing the third Test and the chance to clinch the series outright.
Things might’ve been rosier at the P Sara had there been a better combined effort by the bowlers. As it turned out, Randiv alone contributed in both innings and Malinga in only the first innings. And with a collective contribution of two wickets from Mendis and Welagedera, there was no way the batting of the world no.1 team could’ve been contained fewer than 258 – unless you had Superman or at least Muralitharan.
And there in lie the decisive reason why we won the first Test and lost the third. The champion bowler was present for the first Test and was in retirement when the third began. For close to two decades, Muralitharan had pretty much been a one-man attack for his country, as his career-haul of 800 wickets testifies. It will take a long time indeed to adjust to life without the world’s most successful bowler – and in this time of transition a few defeats are inevitable. The third Test loss, so, isn’t cause for serious anger and despondency.
Lessons to be learnt
Hopefully, lessons would’ve been learnt so as to hasten the post-Muralidaran adjustments. But let’s not delude ourselves to think a seamless transition is possible overnight. Muralitharans aren’t gifted to the world dime a dozen – and until such time a match-winner of his kind arrives, an adjustment in our perspective to and expectation of our cricket is advisable.
And any harsh criticism of skipper Sangakkara isn’t going to help the cause of a swift post-Muralitharan transition. Any captain’s lot isn’t easy to cope with, more so the lot of the one who leads the team of the country’s most popular sport. The job might be the most prestigious, but it is also the most demanding. Over the past decade we’ve had five captains (Jayasuriya, Tillkeratne, Atapattu, Jayewardene and Sangakkara), which, on average, means a captain every two years. Of the four before Sangakkara, Jayasuriya and Jayewardene resigned, both admitting the pressures of the job had gotten unbearable. Tillekeratne and Atapattu departed for reasons of inadequacy and the availability of a better leader respectively.
Bar Tillekeratne’s appointment, the other three changes followed a pattern of logical succession. At this point in time, though, it is premature to name the logical successor to Sangakkara, who’s in the job for just about a year anyway. The appointment of Jayewardene as Sangakkara’s deputy is indicative that an emerging leader hasn’t appeared on the horizon yet – an absence partly brought about by Jayewardene’s premature resignation, after just three years, 2006-09, aged 31.The reason for his resignation, he says, was to allow for new ideas and fresher thoughts which would be more beneficial to the team. It isn’t coincidental that at the time of his resignation, he was taking quite some flak for preferring to play in the IPL over a hurriedly arranged tour to England. As well, criticism of leadership was leveled for losses to India in two successive ODI series at home. It isn’t exactly a secret that it was the excessive criticism he was subjected to that precipitated his resignation.
Questions are now being asked about Sangakkara’s leadership, as it must. A call for his head hasn’t been made yet, but a few more defeats and that cry will be heard, undermining the captain’s confidence – which isn’t quite what the doctor would prescribe a team preparing for next year’s World Cup.
This is not to infer that Sangakkara’s captaincy has always been above criticism. Some of his decisions in the lost third Test were indeed questionable. For instance, when India’s second innings was in serious crisis, at 62/4 on the final morning, the placement of defensive fields rather than crowd the batsmen can hardly be described as a winning move. Of course, he did deploy fielders closer to the batsmen, but at the first hint of the batsmen’s inclination to attack, he rushed his fielders back to patrol the boundary. It did seem as if Sangakkara was content waiting for the batsmen to make mistakes rather than create their dismissal. Bold experimentations might not have changed the outcome, but then failing after having tried isn’t as bad as failing without trying.
Sangakkara clearly didn’t try enough ways to win, and for that he deserves to be chastised. But when criticism is made of his captaincy, Muralitharan’s retirement and presiding over a team on the remake ought not to be forgotten. Sangakkara has more on his plate than most of his predecessors. He deserves our understanding.