Sri Lanka have lost the series inside nine days of cricket, been rolled for 110, failed to muster a single triple-figure partnership let alone an individual century, and have, in general, failed to compete in South Africa, but for one player at least, it has been something of a breakthrough tour.
Suranga Lakmal came to the country with a reputation for bowling long and controlled, but ultimately wicketless, spells. His bowling average of 47.65 at the time of arrival was perhaps slightly uncharitable, given the support he has provided to bowlers at the other end. However, it was also difficult to suggest that it was completely undeserved – so flat have some of his performances been, albeit on tracks unsuited to his work.
For the first time since his third Test – played in March 2011 – that average has now dipped below 45. He has 12 wickets at 24.08 in the series, having claimed 5 for 45 in the first innings at Port Elizabeth and 4 for 69 in the second innings at Newlands.
“I think this is my most successful series,” Lakmal said. “I had a big challenge when I came here, because there was a little pressure from the selectors and the board. I’ve been in this team as the senior bowler for a while, and I don’t just want to live off that reputation. That’s not fair to the younger bowlers in Sri Lanka either. I thought that if I didn’t do well in this series, maybe I wouldn’t be in the Test team anymore.”
Lakmal’s most-successful series before this had been in the UAE in 2013-14, where he took 12 wickets on pitches that were a little less kind to the quicks. He now has the opportunity to surpass not only that tally, but also the series record for any Sri Lanka seam bowler, which is currently held by Chaminda Vaas, who claimed 16 scalps in the 1995 two-Test series in New Zealand.
“As a goal I’d set myself 15 wickets in the series before I came here. I told the coaches that as well, and thought I would have had a successful tour if I could achieve that. Now I’ve got 12 already, so I’ve raised my target to 18 or 20 wickets. Maybe it’s a bit of luck – but I’ve managed to do well so far.”
Perhaps a little luck has helped – no catches have been spilt off his bowling this series, which is not something a Sri Lanka seamer can ever take for granted. However, the definitive area of improvement has been the generation of movement – both in the air and off the seam. Lakmal has bowled in friendly conditions in New Zealand and England before, but has never tested batsmen as consistently as he has on this trip.
“There is more support from these surfaces than in Sri Lanka, but also, I’m in good rhythm these days, and I made a small change to my action,” he said. “I watched a few of my old videos with the coach and analysed it in Sri Lanka. I practiced the change at home and when I came here, I found I could swing the ball more. That’s the difference.
“My arm had been coming round-arm a little earlier. I’ve worked on that and straightened it up now. The ball hits the seam more often now, and it can go either way from there.
“If you compare with Sri Lanka we also have to pitch it up about a foot further, because of the bounce. Once you do that, you give it more of a chance to swing as well, and the wickets come a bit easier.”
The bowlers in general, have also shown mild improvement with the bat, usually hanging around at the crease for longer than has been the case in previous away tours. Lakmal hit 19 not out in Port Elizabeth – an innings which featured three controlled boundaries off Vernon Philander in the space of six balls. He said there has been a renewed focus on tail-end batting within the team, over the past few months.
“In Sri Lanka there’s a big challenge because in the media and everywhere, they say that in all the other countries, the last few batsmen score a few runs and it’s only in Sri Lanka that we don’t. Our coaches also had a challenge there, because that was a criticism of them as well. Before we came to South Africa, we did additional sessions with the batting coaches and the bowling machine for 90 minutes or two hours. I think the improvement in my batting is a result of that.”
“Hopefully that will improve over the years as well. We shouldn’t just be happy with 10 or 15 runs. If the last few batsmen can provide 100 or 150 runs together, the four of us can help the team out. Even if the top order is out cheaply, we can maybe still aim to get to 300.”