The Lankan passion for cricket
The true passion for the game of cricket in Sri Lanka did not come after we won the World Cup in 1996. In reality it is more than a century old. Henry W. Cave's 'Book of Ceylon' 1908 describes
cricket in Sri Lanka: -- "At the Galle Face Sports Club cricket ground a reliable and astonishingly good wicket is always available by the use of a strip of coir matting. Cricket in Ceylon is a perennial game and has indeed become the national game of the country, the Ceylonese being remarkably proficient in it. Even the coolies indulge in the pastime and the stranger will be amused to see them innocent of clothing with the slightest exception, and wielding extemporised and primitive implements."
Thilan turning out to be Mr. reliable in Sri Lanka Cricket

With such a passion for the game, and the way Cave described the Ceylonese as being remarkably proficient, sometimes we wonder why it took us so long to get into the big league. Now it is all in the past and Sri Lanka is one of the top dogs in the arena.Among the top four Australia (126) managed hang on to their top spot by the virtue of salvaging the last game of a series that lost on home soil after seventeen long years. Australia lost their just concluded series to South Africa 2-1 to end up just five points behind the Aussies at 121.

India after their brave show against Australia and England are just three points against at 118 while Sri Lanka after their impressive wins against India and Bangladesh are in fourth place with 109 points.
Sri Lanka has really worked towards this accolade. From the 2006 season Sri Lanka has only lost one Test series in nine engagements. In 2006 Sri Lanka drew 1-all against England at home and then beat South Africa 2-0 also at home. Then in 2006/07 they held New Zealand 1-1 away while beating Bangladesh 3-0 at home.

Sri Lanka began 2007/08 losing to Australia 2-0 away in a series that they could have done better. Thereafter Sri Lanka beat England 1-0 at home, drew with West Indies 1-all away, beat India 2-1 at home and beat Bangladesh 2-0 away.

This surely depicts an ascendancy of Sri Lanka in the longer duration of the game – a complete reverse of the tag they had of being versatile in the slap-bang versions of it a while ago.

Sri Lanka came to fame in the World arena by winning the Cricket World Cup in 1996 and thus became the new kids in the blocks in the world arena, but, still they did not look at them as a serious Test playing nation. Nevertheless they gradually upgraded their game so that they reached the top four in Test recognition and have managed to stay there for more than two years now.

Like most of the Indian sub-continent teams Sri Lanka is also another side that nurtures its players for a long time and expectedly it has paid its own dividends for its faithfulness.

Since the World Cup win in 1996 or so Marvan Atapattu and Sanath Jayasuriya formed an alliance at the top of the Lankan batting order. So much so that it formed the nucleus of Lankan batting till the maturing of the next-in Mahela Jayawardena and Kumar Sangakkara.

Sanath went on to bat for 110 Test matches scoring 6,973 runs that included 14 centuries and 31 half centuries. On fifth December 2007 Jayasuriya decided that he should move away from the longer duration of the game and concentrate on the more lucrative and less strenuous limited overs segments. His last Test was against England which Sri Lanka won by 88 runs.

Opening partner of Sanath Jayasuriya, Marvan Atapattu’s last days at the crease were more turbulent. Atapattu who became a virtual passenger in the side during the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies when he was overlooked throughout the entire tournament and then also in the aftermath of the series, anyway fought his way back into the side and scored 80 runs in his last Test innings before announcing his retirement in Hobart after the second Test against Australia where the Lankan lost the match by 96 runs after making 410 runs chasing an unlikely target of 507 for victory. There in the after-match press briefing he labelled the Lankan Cricket selectors a set of muppets and jokers.

However the search for replacements is still on. Michael Vandort and Malinda Warnapura have made runs, but still they do not possess the same versatility and the fluidity that their predecessors possessed.
However they are followed by deputy skipper Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena who have now become the backbone of Lankan batting.

Nevertheless it was very interesting to note what transpired in the Lankan batting in Bangladesh in the recently concluded tour. Here Sangakkara and Jayawardena scored, but were not entirely the drivers behind the 2-0 win. In the first Test it was the dogged Thilan Samaraweera who took the Lankan first innings total to 290 when the domino was collapsing. Samaraweera who has been the unsung performer in Lankan batting has been at the receiving end of the hapless Lankan selectors more than once, but his performances from the day that he was included in the side as an off spinner but ended up scoring a hundred and for while had an average of over one hundred. He had only two bad outings at the most for the selectors to chop him up and put him in the also played list for a while. Upon his return he reminded the Brady-bunch of what he is made of by scoring an overseas ‘ton’ against the West Indies and followed it up with a string of good knocks in Bangladesh.

It was heartening to see T.M. Dilshan who was gasping for breath at the crease taking on a new role for himself with two huge innings. It is hoped that he now would grow up to understand what his role really is in the Lankan middle order.

On the other hand it is disturbing to note how Sri Lanka’s ace for the past decade Muttiah Muralitharan is striving to earn his wickets in the recent past. In the first Test the Bangladesh batsmen who are talented, but short of exposure scored freely against the world’s highest wicket taker though he ended up with a match bag of ten. However for the whole second Test, Murali went in with three wickets in spite of having Ajantha Mendis to bowl besides him.

There may be slight hiccups but, what is most encouraging is that Sri Lanka has graduated into a very respectable Test playing force. Without being much noticed we have achieved a position that the others are still trying to make a reality.
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