The margin of Sri Lanka’s defeat to India in Nagpur – an innings and 239 runs – was the worst in their Test-match history. The defeat was also the most recent in a sequence of chastening results against India.
In July-August, Sri Lanka suffered a 3-0 home defeat to India, and lost each of the Tests by a big margin: 304 runs, an innings and 53 runs, an innings and 171 runs.
For a team as inexperienced and low on confidence as Sri Lanka are currently, it might seem like a punishment to play the world’s No. 1 Test side in back-to-back series, but their interim coach Nic Pothas feels the experience will help identify players “with the right characters”, who can take the team forward in the long term.
In his post-match press conference on Monday, Pothas said, without naming names, that there were a few players in the dressing room who had been making the same mistakes repeatedly and were in danger of losing their places.
“I still firmly believe, if we play a team like India in such a short space of time, twice, in six Test matches, the guys with the right characters – which I keep talking about and I keep asking for – will get better into the future,” he said.
“As long as the curve is on a general upward trend, then you’re always going to be, when you look down the line, that person’s going to get better. Like in any environment, when things get tough and the pressure goes up, some people fall off the bus, some people get better. That’s natural everywhere.
“I think the key is to make sure that we’re picking people, or more people, that are likely to stay on the bus when the pressure goes up. That again is the nature of professional sport. It’s tough, and, as we sit here, it’s very, very tough. The answer you’ll probably get in the next 18 months or two years whether this was a good idea or not to play India twice. Personally, as a coach, I find it hugely exciting.
“I’ve learned a hell of a lot in the last series and in the short period of time we’ve been here, and I’ll continue to learn more. What I would say is that, when you play a team like India, cricket is a game like chess. If one team makes a move, or an individual makes a move, you’d better have a counter-move, because if you don’t, you will fall off that bus. At the moment in our changeroom, we probably have a few who keep making the same move and they keep losing pieces off the chessboard.”
A big contributing factor to Sri Lanka’s present state, Pothas felt, was the fact that players come to Test cricket having played mostly three-day first-class cricket. He said the SLC, which has included the former Test captains Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara in a five-member committee to rehabilitate Sri Lankan cricket, was in the process of addressing the issue.
“If we don’t have a format whereby – I think this is being addressed, at the moment – if you don’t have a format that gives you the opportunity to bat for four to six hours, I think it’s unfair on our part to ask batters to now come and try and replicate that in a Test match against high-quality bowling,” Pothas said. “That, once again, is just a fact. But that is being addressed.
“I think Kumar and Mahela have spoken about that at length, and I think their advice is being heeded at the moment. Once we get into a four-day format of high-quality cricket, it will actually make it easier to select people based on results rather than on any other factor.”
Pothas did not mince words while summing up Sri Lanka’s Nagpur performance, calling it embarrassing. “Hugely disappointing,” he said. “Disappointing because of the amount of work that goes in, behind the scenes, and to put in a performance like that, I think it’s embarrassing. The players should be embarrassed in their own performances. Putting in work and hitting the ball nicely in the nets means nothing if you’re not going to go out and put runs on the board.”
He was scathing of their approach on the fourth day, when, faced with a massive first-innings deficit, a number of players got out playing aggressive shots rather than try to bat time. “Was there a message [before the day’s play]? Of course there was a message. Were they asked to make sure that our score was made up 61% out of boundaries? No. When the percentage of your score is so high in boundaries, against a quality attack, you’re going to run into a lot of trouble.
“India, for example – 610 [in their first innings], boundary percentage 37. That’s why they get 610. We’re talking about the top batters in the world. If 37% is good enough for them, then it sure should be good enough for us. If you’re striking at 61% in boundaries, that’s what’s going to happen.”
One of the major concerns for Sri Lanka on the batting front is the form of their ex-captain Angelo Mathews. He hasn’t scored a Test hundred since August 2015, and since then has averaged 27.80 across 36 innings. Pothas sympathised with Mathews’ struggles with injury of late, and backed him to rediscover his form, but said there was no running away from his recent numbers.
“Having injuries is always tough when you’re not playing continuously, to try and strike a rhythm when you do come back,” Pothas said. “If you’re consistently playing, and facing bowling above 140kph, you get used to it.
“We’ve got Thilan Samaraweera now as our batting coach, who is a phenomenal batting coach with a good track record. I’m sure Thilan will sit with Angelo and work things out. Angelo is a quality international cricketer. His numbers over a period of time tell you that.
“But you can’t run from the numbers in the short term. Angelo is hurting at the moment, he has an immense amount of pride. And I have no doubt that, with his ability, he’ll come out with some answers. It’s our job as coaches to create an environment and to provide him with as much support as possible, in order for him to have the best chance of success.”