The Lankan riddle

Cricket: India face a formidable challenge over the next three weeks, with the islanders boasting of a strong record

The Lankan riddle

Invincible?: Sri Lanka have not lost a Test series at home since 2004. AFP

The massive disparity between success at home and the lack of it on foreign soil resulted in the mocking sobriquet ‘tigers at home, lambs abroad’.

In the last decade, however, India have done more than enough to erase that stigma, emphatically. The top-ranking Test status is indicative of the giant strides India have taken as a travelling force. A series win has remained elusive in Australia and South Africa, and India have yet to replicate their series triumph in the Emerald Isles of 1993, but Test wins in these countries, and series victories everywhere else, have contributed to India shedding their ‘home kings alone’ tag.

Sri Lanka, it would appear, are now the new India. At home, they are an impregnable force, a wonderful collection of sinewy grace with the bat and innate guile with the ball. On familiar slow, low tracks, they mow oppositions down, burying them under a mountain of runs and allowing their assortment of medium-pacers and that magician non-pareil, Muttiah Muralitharan, to step in and land the knockout blows.

Overseas, however, has been a different story. Even in India, where conditions aren’t too dissimilar from back home – except in the north of India where humidity is somewhat conspicuous by its absence – the Lankans have a miserable record, yet to taste even a Test victory in nearly 30 years. Their batsmen, so commandingly aggressive and supremely confident at home, have struggled for like numbers on surfaces with greater bounce and more pronounced lateral movement, while Murali has often been forced to plough a lone furrow, his efficacy reduced as his work-rate has increased.

That is, truth to tell, perhaps the problem every team faces. Few sides travel with the same success as at home. It is difficult to think of too many outfits apart from Clive Lloyd’s Caribbeans of the late 70s and the early 80s, or the Australians of a more recent vintage, who have duplicated home success on foreign soil. Needless to say, that’s one of the great challenges of Test cricket.

Sri Lanka’s enormous success at home – they haven’t lost a full series here since 2004, when an inspired Australia crushed them 3-0 -- has been the subject of many discussions. They play their conditions quite beautifully, have been blessed with the right personnel to exploit those conditions with aplomb, and they have used the enervating humidity as an ally, feeding off it even as the opposition has gradually wilted.

They have thrived on the constant chanting of their fans, drawing from the energy of the supporters and determined to give them a good time. “We are a small nation, but we are a very proud nation,” Mahela Jayawardene, skipper at that time, had told this newspaper during India’s tour here in 2008. “We are grateful for the support we receive from our fans, and we try our utmost to make sure we don’t disappoint them.”

That ‘utmost’ has yielded the right results more often than not. Murali has understandably been in the forefront of many a victory, but the batsmen have played an almost equal part, with first Sanath Jaysuriya, and more recently Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Thilan Samaraweera and Tillakaratne Dilshan playing with purpose and aggression.

Murali’s guile was complemented by Chaminda Vaas, the canny left-arm medium-pacer, though how Sri Lanka adapt to life without the two veterans after this week’s first Test remains to be seen.

Using January 1, 2001 as a reference point, Sri Lanka have won 30 of 47 Tests at home, losing just eight Tests in nearly a decade. In that same period, though, they have won just 11 of 39 matches overseas, including two wins in Zimbabwe and four in Bangladesh, and lost 19.

It’s a stunning reversal of numbers, a trend difficult to explain given the quality in the Lankan ranks while at the same time reiterating the difference in confidence levels between playing at home and while parading their wares on foreign soil.

The sense of invincibility with which Sri Lanka strut their stuff on home patch is precisely what India must contend with over the next three weeks as they seek to translate solitary Test wins in both their last outings here into a first series win in this tiny island nation in more than 17 years.

With series triumphs in recent times in the West Indies, England and New Zealand, India have shown that they have what it takes to buck the trend and to rewrite history. But beating Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka? That is quite a daunting prospect. “We have won Test matches in our last two series here,” Rahul Dravid acknowledged. “We need to maintain the same intensity for the duration of the series if we are to go one better this time.”


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