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 around, 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 in the same day. The match 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 practised 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 may be able to turn his immense reach and his reserve of power into a potent pairing of defence and attack.
On the bowling front, Australia will take a different approach to their hosts and rivals. 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 fast 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 modicum of comfort from the Pakistan result, but not too much. “What we have been talking about a bit compared to Pakistan is I think the tempo is going to be a bit 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 that 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. Australia’s game of attrition from Pakistan, in both disciplines, 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 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. “They’re from a fishing village and a lot of them can’t go out to fish because they have no petrol.
“We are certainly seeing the effects. Even in the buses we are seeing the queues kilometres long around petrol stations. That has really hit home for us. No matter what the result is we are in a really privileged position and there are lots of people that 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 dishevelled Australian team that left Galle in a state of deep unhappiness. This time around, Cummins will emphasise that his players really should just be happy to be here.