Four batsmen who must step up in Sri Lanka's hour of need

Kaushal Silva drives on the up
England in Sri Lanka 2018-19 November 13, 2018

If Sri Lanka have a half-decent Test record over the past 14 months - and they do, winning six and losing only three of their last 13 Tests - it is largely the work of their bowlers.

Take the matches in the UAE last year, for example. In the first Test, Sri Lanka collapsed in the second innings to leave Pakistan needing only 136 for victory, before Rangana Herath drew on his famed reserves of cricketing fortitude and body-slammed Pakistan for what felt like the millionth time in his career, taking six wickets as they crashed to 114 all out. In the next Test, the day-nighter in Dubai, Sri Lanka were all out for 96 in their second innings, before the bowlers held it together through a tough period in which they were forced to contend with a dew-moistened ball, then snuffed out the Pakistan chase when the match resumed the next afternoon.

Then in Dhaka, in February, Sri Lanka's spinners ran through Bangladesh twice to seal that series. In Bridgetown, in June, the quicks bailed the batsmen out, dismissing West Indies for 93 in a game in which Sri Lanka were nursing a 50-run first-innings deficit. The 2-0 series win against South Africa at home in July was largely the bowlers' doing as well.

Ahead of the Pallekele Test, though, the attack is suddenly not in a good state. Herath is gone forever. Gulp. Fast bowler Lahiru Kumara, who had troubled England in one of the warm-up encounters, committed late-night hara kiri, plunging the dagger of a broken curfew into his chances of appearing in the series. Akila Dananjaya now has a biomechanics test hanging over him, and anyway seemed out of sorts in Galle.

The bowlers, who have carried this Test side for over a year, now appear as if they could use a little help from what is a fragile top order. Dinesh Chandimal, one of the two consistent producers of runs over the past two years (the other being opener Dimuth Karunaratne), is also out of the second Test. The spotlight shifts to four other long-term members of the top order, who perhaps have been guilty of misfiring too frequently in recent series.

Angelo Mathews

Since start of 2017: 788 runs from 26 innings at an average of 30.30

Mathews was the only batsman to cross fifty for Sri Lanka in Galle, doing so twice, and although on the first morning he dropped a catch that most slip fielders could have caught with their mouth, he had a decent enough Test to earn praise from coach Chandika Hathurusingha at the end. But Mathews has got lost time to make up for. Once one of the finest batsman in the world (there is a strong case that he was the best on show in 2014) Mathews' average has been on a steady retreat over the past three years. It is now at 43.51, which suggests he has been merely a good player, rather than on the path to greatness, which is the journey he was expected to make.

With Chandimal now out, there is an argument that Mathews should move up the order to cover for the captain, which would allow the likes of Dhananjaya de Silva to move back down to the lower-middle-order position he has produced runs from in the past. But even if he remains at No. 5, plenty of middle-order responsibility now rests on Mathews' broad shoulders. In his best years, he used to micromanage tailenders into batting in long partnerships with him, coming down after almost every delivery to issue fresh instructions. Sri Lanka could use the overbearing middle-manager in Mathews again.

Kusal Mendis

Since start of 2017: 1352 runs from 35 innings, at 38.62

The stats above may appear somewhat healthy for Mendis, but remove his high score of 196, which came in a high-scoring draw in Chittagong, and that average dips to 34. In any case, a batsman of his talents has no business languishing below 40 for long. Now 30 matches into his career, and with a long Test season ahead, the time to transition into a more consistent phase is upon Mendis. His obstacles are more psychological than technical, you suspect. Anointed the next great Sri Lanka batsman not long after he had turned 21, Mendis has veered between emphatically justifying those expectations and then suddenly, without warning, slipping into haunting career-threatening lows.

He has two things going for him in this next Test. First, he is in form, as his rapid 45 in the second innings in Galle suggested. Second, Pallekele is the venue in which Mendis played one of the greatest Sri Lankan innings at the age of 21 - the match-turning second-innings 175 against Australia. He will always be an aggressive player, and this present set of coaches are loath to scare him into reticence. But if he can introduce slightly more sophisticated shot selection into his existing attacking framework, Mendis may make important contributions even on the days he isn't batting as well as he was in that innings.

Niroshan Dickwella

Since start of 2017: 1105 runs from 37 innings, at 32.50

Occasionally Dickwella has made vital runs in tough situations, but these have generally been in low-scoring games, where a rapid 45 or a chancy 30 can transform the outlook of a match. Of big, career-defining innings, Dickwella is woefully short. As with others in this batting order, he has plenty of talent to work with. But you suspect there is a shortage of maturity. Dickwella gets a start in most innings, but eventually gets too cute with a lap sweep, or shuffles too far to leg, or just generally gets bored and tries to hoick a ball to leg that he could have happily hit through the covers.

In Galle, Dickwella's achievements as a batsman were thrown into relief by England's wicketkeeper-batsman Ben Foakes. While Foakes has a hundred after one Test, Dickwella has a high score of 83 from 44 innings. Where other keeper-batsmen regularly marshal the tail, and squeeze runs out of those lower order partnerships, it is the lower-order men that sometimes have to tell Dickwella to calm down at the crease.

Kaushal Silva

Since the start of 2017: 151 runs from 10 innings at 15.10

Unlike the others on this list, Silva has not had a more-or-less stable place in the Test side for the past two years. This is, however, at least his third attempt at establishing himself at the Test level. It is not an overstatement to claim that the majority of his 72 innings have been played with his place in the side in some doubt.

Silva is one of the few defensive-minded batsmen in this top order, and as such could be an effective foil for the likes of Mendis or de Silva, or even Dickwella lower down. But although in domestic cricket Silva spends time at the crease in order to get runs, he has sometimes forgotten the scoring part of his job at Test level. Instead of being Sri Lanka's wall, he has bricked himself in. Eventually, as he potters along with a strike rate in the 30s, an unplayable ball comes along and knocks it all off.

In Galle there were signs that Silva was trying to break out of his straitjacket, driving and cutting his way to 30, until he missed a straight ball from Jack Leach as he attempted to play the sweep. Silva will almost certainly play right through the series. But if he doesn't pile up a few decent scores in the next two Tests, there is no guarantee he will be in Sri Lanka's plans for the overseas Tests coming up.

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