Australia went into the home Test series against Sri Lanka with nothing to gain and everything to lose. The travails of the Sri Lankan side in the last couple of years made them massive underdogs in this series.
Having suffered a whitewash at home against a non-subcontinental team (England) was a reflection of how far the stocks of the team has fallen in recent times.
Aussies were fully aware that a victory over Sri Lanka wouldn’t make their fans more optimistic about the state of their Test side but a defeat or a drawn series would plummet Australian cricket to unimaginable depths of despair.
Now that the series is over and the result has been completely on expected lines, let’s look at the inferences that we can draw from this contest.
Though, it’s hard to judge whether Australia have made any progress since they were up against a weak opposition, that too in home conditions where the visitors have always struggled, we can deduce certain things about the near future of both teams.
Let’s then review the series and see what are the new things we learnt:
#1 Travis Head emerges as Australia’s most dependable batsman
Australian batting was in shambles against India. The fact that the highest individual score in that entire series from their side was Marcus Harris’ 79, speaks volumes about their struggles.
The one batsman in the middle order who somewhat kept his reputation intact was Travis Head. Though, he didn’t get a big score against the Indians, a couple of half-centuries from him suggested potential.
Head’s stature rose even more in the series against Sri Lanka thanks to his efforts with the bat in both Tests. Of course, getting runs against the current Lankan side, that too at home, isn’t going to make him a superstar, but seen along with his efforts against India, as well as a fifty in UAE against Pakistan, it does indicate that he could well be a batsman that Australia rely on in the future to strengthen their middle order.
With a decent technique against both pace and spin bowling, he could be a vital part of the Australian team in the future.
#2 Joe Burns is a good investment
Among the many important decisions that Australian selectors took for this series was the return of Joe Burns into the team. With Aaron Finch failing to make a mark, selectors decided to give the Queenslander another chance.
He grabbed on to it in style with a big hundred in the second Test. Again, the quality of opposition necessitates caution in pronouncing him as a proven commodity at this level. But it’s not just the runs but also the way he scores them that gives Aussie fans hope.
Burns seems to have some of those qualities which distinguish players from his country. He is an effective stroke-maker and seems at ease against short-pitch bowling.
The fluency of his stroke-play along with his ability to hook the ball well, even against deliveries which are rising above his head, makes him look the part at this level.
Now, it’s up to him to turn his ability into consistent performances and not let go of the second chance given by the selectors.
#3 Usman Khawaja is more comfortable in a supporting role
At the start of the season, with Steve Smith and David Warner out of the team, the batsman regarded as the best in the Australian line-up was Usman Khawaja and he was expected to lead the way in the batting department for them.
However, as things turned out, he was rather a big disappointment. There was some redemption though through his brilliant hundred in the second innings of the last Test of the season.
As always, Khawaja was incredibly elegant. He seems to represent a beautiful confluence of sub-continental and Australian styles of batting. The supple wrists (sub-continental) and free-flowing stroke-making (Australian) have always made him a highly watchable batsman.
But his performances this season were very disappointing. The century in the last innings of the season was crucial as it would secure his place in the team.
It could also be an indication of something else. Perhaps, it tells us that Khawaja is more comfortable when he is playing a supporting act and is not at ease being the leader of the batting line-up.
He performed brilliantly with Smith and Warner in the team and even put aside his struggles against spin while playing in their absence against Pakistan last year in UAE. The pressure of expectations may have got to him and queered his pitch.
However, with both Smith and Warner set to be back in the side soon, he may once again become the quality batsman we have known him to be.
#4 Sri Lankan batsmen are still lacking consistency
Talent doesn’t seem to be a problem if one looks at the Sri Lankan batting line-up. The likes of Karunaratne, Mendis, de Silva, Dickwella, along with the captain Chandimal, are no pushovers. Quite the contrary, they have proven their mettle at this level in the past.
But all of them were at sea in this series against good quality pace bowling assisted by helpful conditions. The performances of all these batsmen were disappointing and it shows that in spite of their talent, they are yet to achieve the level of consistency which could fill the huge void left by the departure of Sangakkara and Jayawardene some years ago.
Karunaratne had a great time at home against South Africa last year and even in this series, he looked good at times without going on to get big scores.
Mendis has shown the ability to deal with quality pace bowling in foreign conditions with some gutsy knocks outside Asia but he failed to come up with any goods this series.
Dhananjaya de Silva certainly has talent but it’s not transforming into consistent scores. Niroshan Dickwella played a typically spirited knock in the first innings of the first Test but that was the only substantial contribution by him in the two matches.
Chandimal, the best batsman in the team, failed to rise to expectations and lead by example while Angelo Mathews was also sorely missed.
In short, the Sri Lankan batsmen are showing the same kind of inconsistency that has plagued West Indian cricket for years. Unless, the likes of Mendis and Chandimal become more prolific, the struggles are likely to continue for the emerald islanders.
#5 Suranga Lakmal remains potent in helpful conditions
When Suranga Lakmal had a good Test against India at Kolkata in 2017, the Sri Lankan coach said that the lanky pacer becomes very dangerous in swing-friendly conditions. This was proved again by his five-wicket haul in the day-night Test against Australia.
The day-night Tests in Australia that have been an annual fixture since 2015 and have invariably seen swing bowlers reaping rich harvest. Last year, Jimmy Anderson and Chris Woakes picked up a bagful of wickets under lights in the Ashes Test.
It is not surprising therefore that Lakmal again came to the fore for his team. While Sri Lanka are yet to find a decent replacement for Chaminda Vaas since his retirement, Lakmal has time and again proven his worth in helpful conditions.
However, a bowler playing for an Asian team won’t get such conditions very often and Lakmal’s inability to repeat such performances in less amiable surroundings has kept him from becoming a world-class bowler.
But if the pitch is green or the skies are dark, Lakmal will be Sri Lanka’s most potent weapon.