04/03/2024

Steve Smith captained Australia during its last Test series against Sri Lanka back in 2016. (Photo: cricket.com.au)

With the white-ball component of Australia’s tour of Sri Lanka wrapped up, attention now turns towards a two-match Test series set to be played in Galle.

With the white-ball component of Australia’s tour of Sri Lanka wrapped up, attention now turns towards a two-match Test series set to be played in Galle.

The Inner Sanctum casts an eye over some of the key talking points in the lead-up to the first Test.

Lessons from the past

Coming off the back of a historic 1-0 Test series win against Pakistan, Australia will be searching for more success on the subcontinent when it meets Sri Lanka in Galle.

The last time Australia toured Sri Lanka was in 2016 when the hosts claimed a comprehensive 3-0 series victory. Experienced Sri Lankan left-arm off-spinner Rangana Herath tormented the Aussie batters, collecting 28 wickets at an average of 12.75. This included three five-wicket hauls.

Eight members of that unsuccessful tour are part of Australia’s squad for the upcoming series, including Usman Khawaja, David Warner, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, and Jon Holland. 

Starc was a shining light for Australia last time out, taking 24 wickets at an average of 15.16 across the three Tests. Meanwhile, Smith played arguably a lone hand with the bat, averaging 41.16 with a high score of 119.

Australia will no doubt be hoping that history doesn’t repeat itself this time around.

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Spin to win

Just as was the case in the recent ODI series between these sides, spin is set to play a major part across the two Tests. Galle is expected to offer a slow, spinning deck, surrounds which will be all too familiar to the home side.

From Australia’s standpoint, Nathan Lyon will be key to its prospects of taking the necessary 20 wickets to win a Test match. Back in 2016, Lyon collected 16 wickets at an average of 31.93 and will be looking to increase his output six years on.

The selection of two spinners in Australia’s XI for the first Test has been confirmed, with leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson given the nod ahead of finger-spinners Jon Holland, Matt Kuhnemann, and Todd Murphy. Swepson was the preferred option in Pakistan and performed commendably despite little reward in the wicket’s column.

Ashton Agar is still recovering from a side strain sustained during the opening one-day international and is unlikely to be available in time for the first Test.

Sri Lanka boasts numerous options in the spin department, headlined by the left-arm spin of Lasith Embuldeniya and Praveen Jayawickrama. Ramesh Mendis offers right-arm variety, whilst leg-spinner Jeffrey Vandersay has also been added to the squad after impressing during the ODI series.

Embuldeniya and Jayawickrama in particular will be hoping to emulate the feats of champion Sri Lankan spinner Rangana Herath back in 2016, both of whom will seek to challenge the outside edge of the Australian right-handers.

The fact that Sri Lanka bowled 43 out of possible 50 overs using spin during the fourth one-day international offers an early indication of the spin bowling barrage Australia can expect to face.

A battle between two captains

Despite the spin-friendly conditions likely on offer, Australia’s spiritual leader Pat Cummins will still be central to Australia’s chances of atoning for its series defeat back in 2016.

Cummins was Australia’s joint leading wicket-taker in Pakistan a few months ago and looms as a major threat to the Sri Lanka batting line-up. The right-arm seamer will be keen to exploit any reverse swing on offer and remind the cricketing public of why he is the ICC number one ranked Test bowler in the world.

The 29-year-old averages a remarkable 7.78 with the ball against Sri Lanka in Test cricket, however, he is yet to play the side away from home. During the recent ODI series, Cummins took eight wickets across four matches to be Australia’s leading wicket-taker for the series.

Cummins will also be tested from a tactical point of view, with field settings for his spinners expected to be crucial to the outcome of the series.

On the flipside, Sri Lanka captain Dimuth Karunaratne will also be integral to his side’s fortunes. The left-handed opening batter currently sits sixth in the ICC’s Test batting rankings and will be looking to set the platform for his team at the top of the innings.

Interestingly, Karunaratne only averages 17.18 against Australia in Test cricket, his lowest output against any opposing nation.

A few big scores from the Sri Lankan Test captain could prove the difference in the result of the series.

Survival of the fittest

Plagued by injuries since arriving in Sri Lanka, Australia’s squad depth has been pushed to the limit in its recent white-ball encounters.

Steve Smith (quad), Travis Head (hamstring), and Mitchell Starc (finger) have all endured interrupted tours, paving the way for the addition of Glenn Maxwell to the squad.

The fitness of Head will likely determine whether Maxwell features during the series. The Victorian last donned the baggy green back in 2017 and has not played a first-class match since 2019. Nevertheless, his batsmanship against spin and handy off-breaks could see him play an important role.

Given Starc’s success on Australia’s last tour of Sri Lanka, he shapes as a significant inclusion in the red-ball line-up. Meanwhile, Smith hasn’t featured on the tour since the second ODI and will likely be raring to go come the first Test.

The forecasted hot weather and high levels of humidity in Galle will also serve as a challenge for the Australians. The demands of Test cricket will be on full show, especially being able to occupy the crease for long periods and remain energised out in the field in sapping conditions.

In-form Sri Lanka batters

Australia got a close-up look at some of Sri Lanka’s Test match batters across the white-ball leg of the tour and will be on full alert as to the danger they pose moving forward. 

Top-order batters Pathum Nissanka and Kusal Mendis were on fire in the ODIs, combining for 471 runs across the series. Nissanka may potentially open the batting with Karunaratne, whilst Mendis appears all but certain to slot in at number three.

One to also keep an eye on will be Dhananjaya De Silva, who has a healthy average of 41.66 against the Aussies in Test match cricket. He scored a century in Colombo back in 2016 and looked ominous during the recent ODI series, batting with plenty of flare and aggression.

Sri Lanka’s most recent Test series victory over Bangladesh also saw Angelo Matthews find form, with the 35-year-old posting big scores of 199 and 145*.

The Australian bowling unit will need to be at the top of their game to break through this Sri Lankan batting line-up.

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