For the first time in more than 18 years, Sri Lanka faced the daunting prospect of achieving a Test victory after the retirement of Muttiah Muralitharan, their spin maestro. However, it is doubtful whether even the great Murali would have managed to add substantially to his record haul of 800 Test wickets on a pitch as placid as the one at the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) over the past five days. Murali has always been known for his sense of timing, and he is probably glad he brought down the curtain on his remarkable career before he was asked to bowl on this batsman's paradise, which yielded 1,478 runs for the loss of just 17 wickets.
Could he have made the difference against India for Sri Lanka, who are one-nil up, and helped seal the three-match series? It is debatable. However, judging by the prodigious turn Harbhajan Singh, Pragyan Ojha and Virender Sehwag, the Indian spinners, extracted over the last two sessions, Murali's presence almost certainly would have made life much more interesting. His record of 166 wickets from 24 matches at the SSC is the best by anyone at a single Test venue and he has taken five wickets on 14 occasions and 10 wickets on four occasions at the Colombo ground.
Without Murali, Sri Lanka's spin hopes rest on the inexperienced young shoulders of Ajantha Mendis and Suraj Randiv. They did not fare badly during this Test, sharing six wickets between them from a combined 136 overs. Tillakaratne Dilshan also proved a handy part-time option, claiming three wickets with his gentle off-spin. Mendis is expected to help fill the huge void left by Murali. He accounted for four of the Indian first-inning wickets in his first Test since November of last year. Mendis bowls a decent variety but he needs to develop an alternative ball that could be a potential wicket-taking weapon, like Murali's doosra or the big turning off-break, now that most international players have become familiar with his assortment of deliveries. He does not have a bad record, having taken 48 wickets from 11 Tests at an average of 30.62, but he has the potential to be much better.
His performance should surely see him retained for the series decider at the P Saravanamuttu Stadium, starting on Tuesday. Mendis has played two Tests at the Colombo venue and Sri Lanka have won both. Kumar Sangakkara, the captain, will hope Mendis can play a similar role and make it three in a row to complete a series victory and help Sri Lanka climb to second in the Test rankings. firstname.lastname@example.org