Trial by spin. That was the likely scenario for the Australian men’s Test team, as posed by Sri Lankan captain Dimuth Karunaratne. Softly spoken and not inclined to swagger, the content of the message rather than the delivery held a challenge for Australia, with the likelihood that Sri Lanka will take four spin options into the first Test at Galle.
“Last time we had two fast bowlers, we did not use one,” said Karunaratne, referring to last year’s Test against West Indies when his quicks Suranga Lakmal and Dushantha Chameera bowled 14 overs between them across two innings. Lakmal was not required at all in the second dig.
This time, Karunaratne will likely call on his left-arm spinner Lasith Embuldeniya, off-spinner Ramesh Mendis, and one of left-arm orthodox Praveen Jayawickrama or leg-spinner Jeffrey Vandersay as his specialist options to join one fast bowler. Then there will be the off-spin of Dhananjaya de Silva, who will bat in the middle order.
It’s a daunting prospect on a pitch that, one day out from the match, already looks dry, given that Australia’s most recent memory of Galle involves being rolled over by spin in 2016. Admittedly that match came during a period when Australia in Asia was a comedy procession. Usman Khawaja was dismissed twice on the same day. The game was over before lunch on day three. Mitchell Starc took 11 wickets in a team that couldn’t lay a glove.
These days, especially after a successful tour of Pakistan in March and April, the Australians will feel more competent against the turning ball. Marnus Labuschagne has practiced assiduously against it. Steve Smith has shown that ability since touring India in 2013. David Warner has the experience to find a way. Alex Carey has fast feet and the will to use them. Khawaja, meanwhile, is a player reborn, having dominated that Pakistan tour like never before.
There is a small chance that Travis Head will not pass a fitness test to bat at No 5, but even if he doesn’t, Glenn Maxwell will take his place: in either case, a dashing counter-attacker who will likely take on the spinners rather than trying to outlast them. The only unknown is Cameron Green at six, whose height at the crease may make him vulnerable, or he may be able to turn his immense reach and reserve of power into a potent pairing of defense and attack.
On the bowling front, Australia will approach its hosts and rivals differently. Patrick Cummins will be one fast bowler, a lock as captain. Starc will play, given his history at the ground. Green will offer a third quick option as an all-rounder. If Maxwell does play, he will provide an all-round spin option, but if he doesn’t, Australia will be limited to two specialist spinners in Nathan Lyon and Mitchell Swepson. It is either a show of faith in the frontline pair or an ill-advised ratio between eggs and basket.
Speaking the day before the match, Cummins was prepared to take a fraction of comfort from the Pakistan result, but not too much. “What we have been talking about compared to Pakistan is that the tempo will be slightly different. There it was, a slow burn. Here the game might speed up a bit, and in some ways, you might need to be a little proactive and take a couple more risks.”
Or, in the less diplomatic interpretation: if this pitch rags in the way we expect, wickets will be cheap, and we’ll have to throw the bat to get them before they get us. Likewise, the spinners will have to attack rather than contain. In both disciplines, Australia’s game of attrition from Pakistan will not apply if the surface puts this match into fast-forward.
Amongst all of that, Cummins was keen to make sure that the upcoming Test was treated with an appropriate lightness. With Sri Lanka’s people suffering through a punishing economic crisis, the result will not matter next to the entertainment it can provide.
“I was on a call yesterday and was chatting to some young girl cricketers. “They’re from a fishing village, and many can’t go fishing because they have no petrol. They’re down to one meal a day and are going to school a couple of days a week because the teachers can’t get to school,” he said.
“We certainly see the effects. Even in the buses, we see queues kilometers long around petrol stations. That has hit home for us. No matter what the result is, we are in a privileged position, and lots of people are making this happen for us to have a bit of fun and go out and play cricket. So we are really lucky.” In 2016, it was a discombobulated and disheveled Australian team that left Galle in a state of deep unhappiness. This time, Cummins will emphasize that his players should be happy to be here.