By Champika Fernando
When Dimuth Karunaratne took a group of young cricketers to South Africa last year, the prospects of a thrashing loomed ominously on the horizon. With Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal out of the series, the chances of even a draw were remote, leaving alone a win. However, what ensued at the end of the two-match series was truly remarkable as Sri Lanka clinched it 2-0.
It was a feat no other Sri Lanka team had achieved in South Africa. But with less than three weeks left to enplane for South Africa again – for a two-match Test series, starting with the Boxing Day Test at the SuperSports Park – Dimuth is feeling the pinch. “This is going to be a tough series,” he admitted.
There are reasons for him to say so. First, this would be Sri Lanka’s first series in 11 months. Tournament after tournament was rescheduled as a result of the pandemic. The lack of preparation is a serious concern coupled with the pressure of high expectations, given how well they performed the last time.
“We last played a Test series in January against Zimbabwe,” Karunaratne said. “Since then, we have not played any international cricket. This is going to be a huge challenge for us to overcome. Given the little time we have had to train as a unit, it will be even harder.”
For Dimuth personally, this has been a depressing period. He admits that the long, COVID-enforced break has taken a big toll on his career. “If I tell you I am as good as I was early this year, I would be lying,” he said. “I know this is the same with other cricketers. We lost a good many months of our careers. We were really shaping up as a team. We were winning matches and it took several months for us to get into that mode. It’s unfortunate what happened and it will take some more time for us to get back to the winning ways.”
In a chaotic year, with everything decided by COVID-19, there was little the Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) board could also do to help players get sufficient training with the red ball before heading to South Africa. The Lanka Premier League (LPL) originally scheduled for August was postponed to November. Even those dates had been pushed back twice, giving them barely any time to prepare. So, the players were hurriedly camped in Kandy for a ten-day preparatory camp for the South African series. But, as one coach confessed, it was hardly enough for a high-profile series like the South African one.
The players, however, had no other choice. Apart from Dimuth, Lahiru Thirimanne and a few others in the 22-man squad, the others were in the LPL, a format that demands considerable skill but less patience or soundness of technique. “Still, these are not excuses for us to do badly in the series,” the 32-year-old Sri Lankan skipper asserted. “We had a good 10 days of training in Kandy and we will have about six days to acclimatise to the conditions in South Africa. The players will have to make a quick turnaround, switching gears from T20 to Test cricket.”
Dimuth knows how hard the Proteas would come at them. The wickets on offer are the two fastest in South Africa. The batsmen will have to negotiate some hostile bowling with the ball swinging and moving off the pitch as wickets at Centurion and Wanderers favour seam bowling. This itself is an indication that South Africa will leave no room for error as they had done in the previous tour, where the conditions have favoured the Lankans.
“During the practice game we played in Kandy, there were a few guys who scored runs,” Dimuth said. “But we need to understand that what’s on offer for us in South Africa is not the same. So, I spoke to them and told them to analyse their game and prepare their own game plans because they (South Africa) will come hard at us.”
On the other hand, he wants the players to stay clear of the pressure that comes with their own expectations of repeating their previous performance in South Africa. “We were the underdogs last time,” he explained. “We had nothing to lose. So, we went to the series with a positive mind, wanting to win and, if not, draw, because to draw in those conditions is as good as a win. We are under a bit of pressure this time but we should not let that affect our confidence.”
Sri Lanka’s 2-0 win – arguably the greatest overseas performance of the decade – came on the back of a marauding innings from Kusal Janith Perera. After being reduced to 229 for 6 in pursuit of 304 to win in Durban, Kusal Janith played one of the finest Test innings (153 not out) to lead Sri Lanka to an improbable win. But that’s history now.
Dimuth’s best advice for his players is to stay positive. “Never give up,” he stressed. “If you can’t face the bounce, don’t throw your wicket but leave the ball. The wickets in Centurion and Johannesburg are fast and bouncy and that will test our patience. What we need to do is to play within our zones. Leave the ball as much as possible, rotate the strike and when the ball gets older, it will be a lot easier to negotiate than when the conditions are new. Being defensive is an attacking option in such conditions.”
Dimuth and coach Mickey Arthur are doing what they can to instill confidence as Sri Lanka look to maintain the reputation they laboriously built in South Africa. “I have a very healthy relationship with the coach and that has helped us to be transparent in our decision making,” he said. “We make decisions collectively that leave no room to point fingers at each other when things don’t go right. The players are responding to this well. I also maintain a distance with the coach because when you are too close, things can go wrong. It has happened before.”
Opener Dimuth has so far been an exceptional leader, meticulously turning around a group of cricketers who had a defeatist mindset. If they respond to him well, Sri Lanka could surprise the mighty Proteas in their own backyard once again. “We want to win and, if we can’t, we want to draw,” he said, adding that this would be a good opportunity for youngsters like Santhush Gunathilaka, Dilshan Madushanka, Minod Bhanuka and Wanindu Hasaranga to experience the true spirit of Test cricket.
Sri Lanka Squad for South Africa Tests: Dimuth Karunaratne (Captain), Oshada Fernando, Lahiru Thirimanne, Kusal Mendis, Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal, Kusal Janith Perera, Niroshan Dickwella, Dhananjaya de Silva, Dasun Shanaka, Minod Bhanuka, Santhush Gunathilaka, Wanindu Hasaranga, Dilruwan Perera, Lasith Embuldeniya, Suranga Lakmal, Lahiru Kumara, Vishwa Fernando, Kasun Rajitha, Asitha Fernando, Dushmantha Chameera, Dilshan Madushanka