After play ended on day four of the recently concluded second Test between India and Sri Lanka at the Sinhalese Sports Club, Lankan coach Trevor Bayliss delivered the most scathing indictment of the wicket in use, saying "Even Murali would have struggled to get wickets on this strip."
Fair assessment, and the game provided Sri Lanka with an early, unnerving insight into what its future holds in the wake of Muttiah Muralitharan's retirement and for that matter even the exit of Chaminda Vaas. Equally, that statement points to the need, at some point in the immediate future, for Sri Lanka has to introspect and come up with a complete overhaul of a home strategy that has in the past contributed more wins than losses.
At one level, wickets like the one we saw at the Sinhalese Sports Club are killing Test cricket, especially in a country where the format is not exactly the most popular - but that said, you can see where the urge to produce such wickets is coming from. For the Sri Lankans, who took their time to get the hang of Test cricket and to eventually crack the format (at least at home), there was a simple formula, planned, practiced and executed by almost every captain to have led the team. That formula went thus: bat long and score big in the first innings, then try and skittle the opposition out twice (see the first game of the ongoing series as an example) or, if the opposition won the toss and batted first, try and get them out as cheap as possible, then bat big and bowl the opposition out again.
That strategy tells you how the Sri Lankans approach a Test mentally. If the bowling attack is then, the strategy ensures that the team won't lose (the just ended second India-Lanka Test is a great example) and, if the lineup includes quality bowlers like Vaas, Murali or, more recently, Malinga, then the team is positioned to play for the win. Bottomline, the strategy allows Lanka to win more games than not when playing at home, when it has quality bowlers like Murali and Vaas operating at their peak. In essence, they did everything right for a young Test-playing nation - that is, made themselves hard to beat at home; not necessarily winning matches, but not losing either. Gradually, the strategy meant that when all the pieces were in place, they won the odd game and the odd series 1-0; these wins gave them confidence and gradually made them a top Test team at home.
The way I look at it, with Murali and Vaas not serving Sri Lanka cricket anymore, the time is ripe for a major tactical overhaul that will not compromise on their strengths when playing at home, but will open their game up a tad to help them graduate into a better side when playing away from home. Why I say that is because, despite the public reassurances from Sangakkara and Bayliss, there is a problem - understandable, perhaps -- with resources.
At the start of this overhaul, Sri Lanka needs to shed its fear of losing and begin preparing good Test wickets, that have something for everyone: the batsmen, the pace bowlers, the spinners on either side. Lanka might end up losing the odd Test here and there, but must understand that this is okay in light of the larger strategy at play.
So, if I were Anuruddha Polonowita, I'd be looking at a Dambulla or a return to Asgiriya at Kandy, primarily because these are known to be good cricket wickets. Secondly, apart from having one of the better middle orders in the game today, Sri Lanka's apparent bowling strength lies is its variety - a rare symbiosis of the orthodox and the unorthodox. And this is further reason to relegate the flat-track-score big-take 20 wickets strategy to the status of Plan B, mostly to be deployed against relatively weak oppositions.
For Sri Lanka's long-term plans, the transition to a post-Murali era must be relatively smooth - easier said than done of course, given the void there is to fill. They should have seen his retirement coming and planned slightly earlier, something the Aussies tend to do best in terms of identifying potential replacements for star players nearing their use-by dates. But now that the situation has been thrust upon them, Aravinda de Silva's and Kumar Sangakkara's immediate job begins with finding a settled bowling attack.
Of late, in the past two years in particular, Sri Lanka has struggled to start Test matches with two regular pace bowlers and, equally, has no settled spin bowling combination. Bowlers like Nuwan Kulasekara and Thilan Thushara have either been injured, or don't quite figure in the scheme of things. Even Chanaka Welagedara isn't a certainty, and the same can be said of a Dammika Prasad or even a Lasith Malinga.
On the slow bowling front, Sri Lanka have tried three-four spinners in the recent past, ranging from Rangana Herath to the now one-Test old Suraj Randiv and Ajantha Mendis, who by the look of things is no longer a 'mystery' bowler. The need for a settled bowling attack becomes mandatory, given that they don't any longer have the luxury of a champion bowler like Murali who can deliver whenever the captain throws him the ball. There is talent, of course - the likes of Nuwan Pradeep or even Sachitra Senanayake, both of whom had a fantastic tour to Australia with the 'A' team recently are examples. But Sri Lanka now needs to pick and persist with a settled bowling attack, one capable of playing a few Tests on the trot unchanged, and able to exploit whatever conditions they are presented with, at home or away.
Successive Lankan captains have at various times spoken of their ambition to take Sri Lanka to the top of the Test table, but the country's ambitions as a Test-playing nation might well be defined by the approach they take towards the format, especially in the next few games. The P Sara Oval on which Lanka faces India this week in the third and final Test of the current series could well be the start of something new for Lankan cricket, if they use it to reconfigure their strategy for winning Tests.
The 'formula', like some of the island nation's top cricketers, has served Sri Lankan cricket well - but even strategies have use-by dates, and this just might be the time to look beyond the narrow goal of winning, or at least not losing, at home, and towards the nation's longer-term ambitions as a Test-playing nation.