Island Cricket

Friday, November 30, 2007

Sanath Jayasuriya signals end of Sri Lankan era

Times Online:The Test that started in Kandy this morning is not only all about who wins or loses, not even whether or when Muttiah Muralitharan will again surpass Shane Warne’s world Test bowling record. The impending retirement of Chaminda Vaas and, more of a surprise, the intention of Sanath Jayasuriya to make this his final Test match makes this the end of an era for Sri Lankan cricket, not to mention the start of a new phase in England’s development.

“Era” would be putting it too strongly for the touring team because Michael Vaughan remains as the essential link between the coaching regimes of Duncan Fletcher and Peter Moores; but with Andy Flower and Ottis Gibson working together for the first time on a Test tour as Moores’s assistants, a new fitness trainer, too, and some young players trying to set the base for long careers in the team after the enforced break-up of the class of 2005, it is an important match for all concerned.

For Jayasuriya it is more than important. Having told friends that he intends the match to be his last, he is planning to announce his farewell at the end of this game. With Vaas playing his 100th Test here but being pressed by two younger fast left-arm bowlers and Muralitharan starting to suffer from the aches of advancing years – he has had operations on his right shoulder and right bicep in the past two years – the experienced core of the team is crumbling, with no obvious replacements of equal class.

Jayasuriya’s Test career seemed to have ended early in 2006, when he announced his retirement knowing that he was about to be left out of the first-class leg of Sri Lanka’s tour to England. A change of selection committee prompted a change of mind. He was hurried back into the team for the Trent Bridge Test, which Sri Lanka won to level the series, thanks mainly to Muralitharan’s 11 wickets. Since then, however, he has managed only one Test fifty while continuing to butcher attacks, notably England’s for 152 off 99 balls at Headingley Carnegie last year, in one-day cricket.

For a limited-overs cricketer of such exalted renown – he is credited with the attacking policy that won Sri Lanka the World Cup in 1996 – he has been a mightily effective Test player, too. Depending on his fortune in Kandy, he will retire after 110 Tests with an average around 40 and with 14 hundreds, of which many have been momentous.

English bowlers who took part in the astonishing one-off Test at the Oval in 1998 will never forget the savage square-cutting and off-side carving, mixed with punches off his legs, that brought him 213 from only 278 balls, buying the time for Muralitharan to win the match.

His 340 against India at the Premadasa Stadium in Colombo is the seventh highest of all Test innings. He made 199 in the same series at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground and he has had scores of 188 in Kandy and 253 in Faisalabad against Pakistan.

England know well, too, how effective his left-arm orthodox spin can be. He needed three more wickets for 100 in Tests at the start of this game, so Muralitharan may not have it all his own way.

It remains to be seen whether Vaas will immediately follow his long-time comrade in arms into retirement, but he, too, has been a fading force, despite being only 33, five years younger than Jayasuriya. Vaas’s past nine Tests have brought him only 19 wickets, expanding the overall average for his 320 to 29.

Muralitharan, Mahela Jayawardena and Kumar Sangakkara remain, all impressive and intelligent characters who will lead the transition period, but Jayawardena called after the second of the two Test defeats in Australia two weeks ago for a stronger domestic competition with fewer teams to distil the talent that is emerging in large quantities from all areas of this small but extraordinarily diverse country.

England’s place as the No 2-ranked Test nation, albeit 32 points behind Australia, is threatened if they lose this series. India, South Africa or Sri Lanka could overtake them by the end of the year. India have dominated the series against Pakistan that is continuing in Calcutta and if they win this and the remaining match they would finish on 112 points, one more than England’s present tally. Six points separate England in second and Sri Lanka in fifth at the moment but, if results favour them, South Africa could sneak into second spot before their Test series against West Indies, which starts in Port Elizabeth on Boxing Day.


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