After a pulsating start to the summer against India and the hit and giggle of the Big Bash League, Test cricket returns to centre stage, with Sri Lanka arriving to query another new look Australian Test line-up.
The series, starting in Brisbane on Thursday, shapes as a pivotal audition for a number of Aussie Ashes hopefuls, while the tourists look to avenge their 3-0 drubbing on these shores in 2012-13 and claim their first Test series victory in Australia.
The visitors arrive in Australia off the back of defeats against England at home and New Zealand away, respectively, with their form in both series failing to inspire much confidence in their competitiveness this summer.
The inability to take wickets across the ditch was a significant concern as, following the retirement of the wily Rangana Herath, a heavy burden falls on the off-spin of Dilruwan Perera.
Considering the success Ravi Ashwin had in tying down the Aussie batsmen in Adelaide and Nathan Lyon’s impressive record at the Gabba (31 wickets at 27.71 in seven tests), his ability to tie the Australian batsmen down will be essential to the Sri Lankan attack.
This is primarily because the Sri Lankan pace attack lacks potency. Suranga Lakmal will lead the attack, having taken a career-best 5/54 against New Zealand in Christchurch last month, however, with all pace bowlers possessing Test averages in the mid-to-high 30s and above, the top order must make big totals if they’re any chance.
Making this assignment significantly more difficult is the injury to Angelo Matthews, whose 258 runs against the Kiwis was the most for the tourists, putting additional pressure on captain Dinesh Chandimal and Dimuth Karunaratne.
With 19 Test hundreds between them and previous experience in Australian conditions, their ability to spend time at the crease and force Australia’s quicks into multiple spells each day will be a key determinant of their success.
Man to Watch: Kusal Mendis
The 23-year-old has 34 Tests to his name and, while his six tons at 37.90 doesn’t raise too many eyebrows, the way he goes about his run-making certainly does. With the second most runs against New Zealand behind Matthews, Mendis is a stroke maker who will be keen to have a big series to announce himself as Sri Lanka’s next great batsman.
Plenty has been said and written about the Australian cricket team over the last few weeks and month and, after four Tests, we’re still no closer to knowing those in the squad, let alone the team heading to England for the Ashes later this year.
The 2-1 series loss to India was a fair result, with the hosts’ lack of patience and intent with the bat the primary separator between the two teams.
As Australia’s leading scorers against India, Marcus Harris and Travis Head will both aim to build on solid series. Harris has a compact technique and solid defence, taking full advantage on the rare occasions Jasprit Bumrah and co. overpitched or strayed too wide outside off.
At times, however, he was indecisive against balls around the off-stump, leading to his downfall in Adelaide and Perth.
Similarly, Head thrives on width, but has a rashness that always keeps the bowler interested. He was caught on a number of occasions against India with his feet planted while flashing at the ball, so must be much more conscious in getting his balance towards the pitch of the ball.
Travis Head of Australia looks dejected after being dismissed. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Looking forward, the challenge for both will be when James Anderson and Stuart Broad come around the wicket from ball one in England with deliveries angled in before darting towards the slips cordon, so solidity around their off-stump must improve against the Sri Lankans, with a big score needed to guarantee their tickets to England later this year.
Joe Burns appears most likely to join Harris at the top of the order. With 472 runs at 47.20 in the Sheffield Shield and a healthy first-class average of 40.58, Burns is more of an opening batsman than Aaron Finch, more in-form than Matt Renshaw, and less suspended than David Warner – whose return to the Test set-up at the conclusion of his ban appears more likely by the day.
The fight between Marnus Labuschagne and Will Pucovski for the remaining number six spot is clearly a choice between a short-term fix and a future investment.
Pucovski looks an international cricketer in the making, however, the selectors will likely lean towards the Queenslander with the additional bowling option reducing the workloads of Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and the likely debutant Jhye Richardson, with a World Cup and Ashes series on the horizon.
While Chris Tremain can certainly count himself unlucky considering the body of work he has put together over the past few seasons, Richardson is the form bowler in the country, being the pick of the bowlers in the ODI series against India, while having the third most wickets in the Shield behind Tremain and fellow Victorian Scott Boland, thoroughly deserving a chance in the baggy green.
Man to Watch: Kurtis Patterson
Patterson has jumped ahead of the queue and will likely fill Shaun Marsh’s vacated number four position due to consistent run making, raising a couple of eyebrows in Tasmania – but that’s a whole separate story.
The New South Welshman has three hundreds in his past four innings – including two against the Sri Lankans last week – presenting him a unique opportunity to stake his claim for an Ashes birth with a continuation of this form.
Prediction: Australia to win 1–0
Expect Australia to extend their unbeaten run at the Gabba to 31 years, with the seam and bounce proving too difficult for the Sri Lankan batsmen to handle.
Canberra should be more to the tourists liking, however, with the expected flatter surface making run-scoring easier and more likely to bring Perera into the game, ending in a high scoring draw.
Likely teams for the Gabba
Australia: Marcus Harris, Joe Burns, Usman Khawaja, Kurtis Patterson, Travis Head, Marnus Labuschagne, Tim Paine (c), Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Jhye Richardson
Sri Lanka: Dimuth Karunaratne, Lahiru Thirimanne, Dinesh Chandimal (c), Kusal Mendis, Dhananjaya de Silva, Roshen Silva, Niroshan Dickwella, Dilruwan Perera, Suranga Lakmal, Lahiru Kumara, Dushmantha Chameera