Yes, there is an India-Sri Lanka test series that has just concluded. It came and went like some sort of whatsapp forward whose lifetime is measured in milliseconds. It was a series that got over in ten-and-a-half days, leaving almost 5 free days, enough to fit in another test match itself. But by the looks of it, broadcasters would be least interested in putting their money on a test series that features Sri Lanka.
The last couple of months have been tumultuous for Indian cricket. The saga between Virat Kohli and Anil Kumble came to a head during the Champions Trophy and by the looks of the post match press conference where Kohli said a new culture in the dressing room was emerging, one where players didn’t feel judged and their every move wasn’t subject to scrutiny, seemed to be a dig at the former coach’s supposed overbearing methods. Kohli, it seems, has learned the art of diplomacy. In a world where the world’s most powerful buffoon goes about threatening nuclear war on twitter and everyone looks to their twitter feeds for opinions and breaking news, if one cared to look, there was no congratulatory message from former coach Kumble on the series win.
When India’s descent in tests began in 2011 at the start of the tour of England, legendary careers were on the wane. But that fall from the perch of the No.1 test side began in a away series. Sri Lanka were whitewashed at home. If Arnab Goswami and his cohorts were present on Sri Lankan television, no doubt the high decibel shows would be calling for everyone’s head in a frenzied out of control manner.
The question everyone seems to be asking is – how did Sri Lanka get here? And is their place in World Cricket as a formidable opponent in tests in jeopardy? India doesn’t play tests with Pakistan; Bangladesh has some way to go before being a formidable test side. That leaves only Sri lanka, who are a side in transition. If India is to go looking for a contest in tests, it has to look beyond its neighbours.
The last test series that India lost at home was to England in 2012-13 when Monty Panesar turned the tables on them. Ever since, their dominance at home has been unchallenged, a niggle against Australia in Pune notwithstanding. The previous season, which saw a record number of tests being played saw the side beat New Zealand, England and Australia. Barring Sri Lanka, India haven’t won a test series outside of home in a long time. In 2014, they won a test magnificently at Lord’s before spectacularly imploding in the next three matches. When former coach Kumble was given only a one year term to begin with, it was largely because it was a season where all the tests where being played at home. Once Kumble found his groove as a national coach and understood the players, the time would be right to move onto bigger challenges – that was the rationale. Again, that plan blew up in everyone’s faces and it is safe to say that this test side will be truly tested when they play in England, Australia and South Africa.
But the truth is that test cricket has only a handful of nations that can compete at the highest level. Even Ab de Villiers, one of the greatest batsmen that the game has ever seen, is contemplating retiring from test cricket to extend his limited over career.
Sri Lanka’s journey to the top of the rung has been strewn with stories of disbelief, despair and astonishment – most of which have nothing to do with the long drawn civil war that the country had to endure. There is a brilliant book called This Divided Island by Samanth Subramaniam. It’s about the effects that the civil strife has had on the country, scars of which will take decades and generations to erase. In the Spirit of Cricket speech given by Kumar Sangakkara a few years back, he spoke about how years of strife had shaped him and the country’s cricketers. He spoke of how his father housed families from different ethnicities in their home at the risk of being found by the Tigers and of the sight of charred bodies on streets. And he also spoke of Sri Lanka’s emergence as a cricketing power. Another must read is a brilliant book by Snehan Karunatilaka, based on a fictional Sri Lankan spinner who has seemingly fallen away from the face of the planet.
In the 90s, Sri Lanka were nobodies in the world cricket. India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan had not yet jointly hosted the 1996 world Cup,. The late Jagmohan Dalmiya changed the world order in his own way by making India the treasure chest of world cricket, much to the chagrin of others. Australia even refused to play matches in Sri Lanka, calling out on the never-ending civil war and concerns about their own safety.
While the country was plagued by civil war, the cricket team was waging numerous battles on the field of play. In 1995, umpire Darrel Hair no-balled Muttiah Muralitharan for chucking. Captained by the pudgy Arjuna Ranatunga who would not have met any of the current fitness standards of world cricket, the side stood by Murli in his hour of need and the team walked-off the field in protest and in commiseration to their accused team mate. The sight of Ranatunga wagging his finger furiously at the umpire wasn’t one of senseless bravado; it was one of a leader standing up to a wrongly accused comrade. It was of of cricket’s unfortunate moments, but one that had to have happened if they had to break free from the shackles that were binding them.
In Ranatunga, the side had found a leader who as willing to take bullets for his players. At around the same time, Sri Lanka went about rewriting the rules of how the game was played in the limited overs format. Romesh Kaluwitharana and Sanath Jayasuria formed a fearsome duo who decapitated sides in the first 15 overs with their hell for leather approach. They cemented their place in pantheon of great sides when they lifted in World Cup in 1996 by stunning Australia in Lahore. But the venue would be bittersweet for them. Nearly 13 years later, in their tour to Pakistan, terrorists rained bullets on their bus and they were saved by an alert bus driver. Barring Zimbabwe, no international team has toured Pakistan since.
In the 2008 series against India, they unleashed their secret weapon Ajantha Mendis, who spun a web around the likes of Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman. Virender Sehwag cracked another perilous double century but Sri Lanka, captained by Mahela Jayawardane, came out on top, beating India 2-1. In 2010, the test series against India was drawn 1-1. It was also the last well-fought test series between the two sides.
By 2015, the decline had begun. After being in a commanding position, India fell like nine pins in their second innings in their first match at Galle but went onto win the remaining matches and sealed the series 2-1. The series was also Kumar Sangakkara’s last test outing and there would be no fairy tale ending.
The word serendipity has its roots in the word Serendip, which was the old name for Sri Lanka. It translates to a pleasant surprise or a happy accident, a sequence of events that usually lead to a desirable ending.
A couple of weeks back, I experienced one such moment. One my way to work, at the busy Kempegowda Metro station, I spotted a familiar face. At first I wasn’t sure but when I got close I realised it was none other than bowling great Javagal Srinath, carrying his own bag and stepping on the elevator to take a metro. People around him were equally surprised but he went about his business as if he were just another person, not one of India’s best pacemen who played 4 world cups and clocked 150 km/h in his heyday.
It reminded me of another cricketing moment that featured Javagal Srinath and Sri Lanka. It was the ill-fated semi-final of the 1996 World Cup between India and Sri Lanka. India opted to bowl first and going by the first over, it was the finest decision ever. Kaluwitharana and Jayasuria, who had both been in thunderous form in the tournament, were out in the very first over. We were in class and a teacher let her guard down for once and told an excited classroom the news of the wickets falling. Students in every class were shouting their lungs out. In that match, serendipity arrived in the form of Aravinda De Silva for Sri Lanka, who rescued his side and helped them post a challenging total.
Sometimes, when things aren’t going our way, we wish for something magical to come by and lift us out. We wish a magic genie would arrive on a Monday morning and transport us to a land far away from our dreary day jobs. We wish for a lottery to absolve us of our EMIs and wage slavery.
But those things never come to pass.
The last major tournament that the Sri Lankans won was the T20 World Cup in 2014. Since then, they have seen the retirements of greats and a new generation has been ushered in. They don’t necessarily lack in talent but what they lack now is self-belief. Finding their way back may take some time.
Till then, like the rest of us, all they need now is a little bit of serendipity.