Newly crowned Allan Border medallist Pat Cummins has become the first Australian bowler to top the ICC Test bowling rankings in 13 years.
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Australia’s current frailty has been well documented but in Sri Lanka they today face a wounded Test opponent missing their most experienced and accomplished batsman.
While Australia are weakened by the absence of banned stars Steve Smith and David Warner, Sri Lanka have been cruelled by the injury to Angelo Mathews, their middle order talisman who owns 5,554 runs at 45 in Tests.
What’s more is that Mathews has done well against Australia, with 601 runs at 40 from his nine matches.
His absence places great responsibility on the blades of 23-year-old strokemaker Kusal Mendis, silky middle-order batsman Dinesh Chandimal, and grinding opener Dimuth Karunaratne.
The latter of these batsmen has been Sri Lanka’s leading Test runscorer over the past two years, with 1,695 runs at 45. But he has been a walking wicket in six Tests against Australia, averaging just 15.
Never have I seen a batsman toyed with by Australian quick Mitchell Starc like Karunaratne was in the 2016 series when he made just 41 runs at 7 across his six innings in home conditions. Five times out of six Starc dismissed Karunaratne, who struggled to handle his pace and was constantly squared up by his out swing.
The 30-year-old batsman has a lot to prove in pace-friendly conditions, having averaging just 25 across his 11 Tests in South Africa, England and Australia.
Karunaratne is also fresh from a poor series last month in New Zealand, where he made 96 runs at 24 in the two-Test series. Left arm quicks Trent Boult and Neil Wagner troubled him in that series so Starc is again likely to be Karunaratne’s big concern.
Mendis and Chandimal, by comparison, had no such troubles against Starc in 2016, despite the big quick taking 24 wickets at 15 in that series.
That series was the breakout moment in the career of Mendis. He entered that series as an unproven 21-year-old and emerged from it as one of the hottest young Test players on the planet, having carved 296 runs at 49 and played one of the great innings by a Sri Lankan.
Australia were flogged 3-0 in that series but that series scoreline likely would have looked much different if not for Mendis’ extraordinary 176 in the first Test.
Australia had one foot in the winners’ circle in that match. They had rolled Sri Lanka for 117 on the first day and had them 4-86 in their second dig, with the hosts still yet to establish a lead.
At that stage it looked as if Australia would have to chase less than 120 to win.
Instead Mendis carved up the Aussie attack, earned his side a 267-run lead and Sri Lanka won the match by 101 runs. He starts this series in Australia in nice touch, having just made 225 runs at 75 in New Zealand. That included a marathon 141* in the second Test which saw him spend almost eight hours at the crease.
Perhaps the most naturally-gifted of Sri Lanka’s three key batsmen in this series is Chandimal. The former keeper has taken his game to another level since giving up the gloves, churning out 2,142 runs at 46 as a specialist batsman.
At ease against both pace and spin, Chandimal is a well-rounded batsman who has adapted nicely to a variety of conditions across his career.
He has averaged 43 in his 29 Tests away from home, scoring Test tons in England, India, the UAE, Bangladesh and the West Indies. While he is generously gifted, Chandimal’s standout attribute is his patience.
This was underlined in Sri Lanka’s most recent Test when he soaked up 228 balls while making 56 as he and Mendis dug in against New Zealand’s strong attack. At 29 years old Chandimal is now at the height of his powers and primed for a big series in Australia. If Sri Lanka are to win their first-ever Test series down under they need their own Big Three to prosper.