Angelo Mathews has swatted close-in fielders away before, in grand style. In Pallekele, he couldn't © Associated Press Angelo Mathews has swatted close-in fielders away before, in grand style. In Pallekele, he couldn't © Associated Press
Aug 15, 2017

Cherish the old memories, Sri Lanka

Never in their history have Sri Lanka been so comprehensively rolled over. There was no Duleep Mendis-style counterattack, or a Muttiah Muralitharan-esque bamboozling. There was only misery

At the beginning of day three of the third Test of India's first tour of Sri Lanka, the home side was 153 for 5, but Duleep Mendis was unbeaten at the crease.

Do you remember Mendis? I am too young to, but I've heard the stories, and watched the Youtube clips. I'd learnt, from interviews, how in Sri Lanka's first-ever Test in England, Ian Botham was sure the English attack could just bounce Sri Lanka out, only for Mendis to hook him to the Lord's boundary all day long. I'd seen batting partner Sidath Wettimuny's eyes go wide as he remembered Mendis' audacity that day, and heard Roy Dias' voice brim with appreciation as he said: "We knew that there was a tussle between Botham and Duleep, and Duleep was coming out on top every time." Botham doesn't recall that Test at all (his exact words: "I've played over a hundred Tests. Why on earth would I remember a boring draw?"), but by the end of that match, so good had Mendis, and Wettimuny and Amal Silva been, that Botham was reduced to bowling offbreaks. It was only a draw, but for Sri Lanka of '84, it felt like a heist.

Next year, they beat India at home - their first Test victory ever. It was in the next game that they were wavering at 153 for 5 in response to India's 249. In the second innings of that match, Mendis and Dias rallied, hit a century apiece, and saved the match - securing the series win.

If, like me, you never had the pleasure of seeing Mendis bat, take a look on Youtube. See if an MS Fernando baila doesn't automatically start playing in your head as he plays one of his front-leg-in-the-air pulls, or his limbs-splayed bludgeons through cover. But if you do remember his batting, cherish the memory. Emblazon into your mind the twin hundreds in Madras, or his 51 at P Sara in that inaugural win.

At the beginning of day three of the third Test of India's 2017 tour, Sri Lanka were 19 for 1 following on, still 333 runs behind. No senior batsmen rallied. No one hit a hundred to salvage a little pride, let alone save the game.


The nicks, they kept a'coming © AFP

For everyone else, India's 1997 series in Sri Lanka may have been the most boring ever played, but on the island, it was a rocking celebration. I remember being unable to leave my seat in front of the TV for hours while Roshan Mahanama and Sanath Jayasuriya batted through days three and four at Khettarama. If I recall correctly, the fifth day of that match had been made free entry, and crowds had thronged the ground.

Sure, it would seem petty that Sri Lanka would pursue records excluding a chance at victory and even sportsmanship, but it didn't feel petty to Sri Lanka at the time. They had been minnows only two years ago. Then they had won the World Cup. This was their victory lap.

No one wanted the Jayasuriya innings to end via declaration. He had inspired a generation of pol adi hitters across the country - kids who would go out and will the bowler to send a short, wide ball just so they could play the cut. Who would deny his fans the chance to watch the man bat for any fewer than 799 minutes? Who would want to see him face any fewer than 578 balls?

And who would deny the heaving Khettarama the pleasure of seeing the master, Aravinda de Silva, hit a first-innings hundred on the fifth day? Who would take from them the joy of watching him bring that heavy bat down almost idly, only for the ball to vanish and suddenly reappear as it leapt off the rope to sting the boundary board?

Do you remember any of that? Cherish the memories. Relive the dazzling years of 'Sana' and 'Ara' in your mind.

India's 2017 series in Sri Lanka may also go down as one of the most boring ever played. This time, there are no heaving stands. There is no island celebration.


Sri Lanka has always been an offspinner's dominion. Except this time, it was R Ashwin ruling over it © Associated Press

When India came to tour in 2008, Sri Lanka had two of the world's most fearsome bowlers, and perhaps the cleverest captain around. Throughout that three Test series, India failed to decrypt Ajantha Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan. They tried sometimes to play them off the back foot, other times the front; attempted occasionally to beat them into submission, and sometimes to starve them out. They played Mendis like a seam bowler. They tried reading the ball off the pitch. In the end, none of this mattered; nothing really worked.

And in Mahela Jayawardene, Sri Lanka had a leader with a finger on the pulse of virtually every match, a constant ear to the ground, and an innate sense of when the moment lay waiting to be seized. He prodded opposition batsmen into awkward corners, he had his bowlers take top orders by the collar, he lay traps, he played mind games, and his team won 2-1. Additionally, his mastery of the DRS system in that series helped turn a generation of India players against the idea.

If you have memories of Murali and Mendis terrorising some of the best players of spin in history, keep them close. If you recall a tasty Mahela ambush, bring it to mind and play it over.

At Pallekele, Sri Lanka virtually gifted Hardik Pandya a maiden Test century, thanks in part to senselessly negative tactics, wherein nine men stood at the boundary all throughout the over. When Sri Lanka batted, one of their most senior men edged a ball, and incredibly, squandered a review after he had been given out. It is India's fearsome spinners now - including the two-Test old Kuldeep Yadav - who have trussed Sri Lanka up and shoved them into a chasm.

Sri Lanka have had poor series against India before, but never one this bad. They have been through lulls, transitions, terror attacks, contracts crises, and post-World Cup funks, but almost never in the past 20 years, have they been this muddled, so fearful, so un-watchably, relentlessly meek.


After losing the final Test inside three days, Sri Lanka are looking at a lot of soul searching © AFP

The many reasons for the decline have been laid out over and over, like here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here or here.

Maybe you grew up with M Sathasivam, Michael Tissera or Anura Tennekoon innings being swooned over on the radio. Maybe you fell in love with a photograph of a Wettimuny square drive, a wagging Arjuna Ranatunga finger, or clips of Chaminda Vaas outswingers, Lasith Malinga lifters, and Kumar Sangakkara's bent-kneed cover drives.

Cherish those memories, because what if nothing changes? Make sure to remember the night in Lahore, the afternoon at The Oval in 1998, those endless batting days at Asgiriya, and the irrepressible spin-bowling revelry at Galle.

There is real fear building. Not long from now, what if memories are all that remain?