by Balanced Sports columnist Ben Roberts
The Australian side did not return until 1992 for test match cricket. This time the series consisted of three matches between the sides. Much has been written about the first test, where Shane Warne began to break out and become a match winning player, however the series also featured Muttiah Muralidaran in two of his earlier tests. Although Warne cleaned up the tail in the first test against the Sri Lankans these three wickets were the only ones that he took for the series and was dropped for the third and final test.
Although Sri Lanka were still considered one of the weaker teams in world cricket they pushed the Australians throughout the whole series and it was only rain that saved the visitors from an embarrassing loss in the final test. The only test that went to a result was the first, and Australia was very much on the ropes after having been dismissed for 256 in their first innings. Sri Lanka replied with a declaration eight wickets down for 547, three players Ranatunga the captain now, Asoka Gurusinha, and Romesh Kaluwitharana making centuries. Australia fared better in the second innings with 471 but only left the hosts only 181 for victory.
Warne does get the credit for his three wickets to clean up the Sri Lankan tail and ensure Australian victory (by 16 runs), however Wisden cites victory more being granted by Sri Lanka lapsing into 'old destructive ways'. The hosts went on later in the season to win the limited overs series and began forming the spine of what would become the world cup winning side in 1996. Sri Lanka displayed through the mid 1990s that they were no longer the new kid on the block but a side capable of playing forceful cricket.
Post the heady days of the 1996 World Cup where the Sri Lankan side was the toast of the cricketing world, they had bombed out of the 1999 tournament. Old was replaced with new as they prepared to host the Australian team that had easily become the strongest in world cricket. Despite there being a clear favouritism for the visitors they were shocked as the Sri Lankans won the first test by 6 wickets, a win that ultimately won the series for the hosts.
The Australians were bowled out for 188 in their first innings, future captain Ricky Ponting scoring more than half that total with 96. Although the hosts fared little better with 234 in their first innings they were able to bowl Australia out for 140 in the second innings and with relative ease chase down the 95 needed for victory. Although it was comprehensive by Sri Lanka they were assisted by the absence of Steve Waugh and Jason Gillespie in the second innings after they had collided sickeningly during Sri Lanka's first innings.
The final two tests were completely ruined by rain before the matches had any chance of being decided. Despite this, as in the first test, the Australian players performances remained incredibly below par. Mark Waugh had infamously made four successive ducks on the previous tour in 1992, and he fared little better this time around averaging only 15. Only Ponting made a century in the tests with 105 during Australia's only innings in the drawn third test. Muralidaran was the pick of the bowlers from both sides with 15 wickets, a haul limited by rain as he had the Australians in knots a majority of the time.
In a complete turnaround from the previous visit to Sri Lanka the Australians clean sweeped the next three test series, this despite calls that the once great Australian's were on the wane. The first test ended in a comprehensive victory (by 197 runs) to Australia, however the final result betrays Australia being 161 runs in arrears after the first innings! It was the second innings by Australia of 512 for 8 declared with three centurions coupled with Shane Warne (opening the bowling) and Stuart MacGill rolling through the hosts batting lineup for 154, the bowlers taking 5 and 4 wickets each. It was a spinners game as Muralidaran took 11 wickets also.
The second test went down to a closer result, though the flow of the match was similar to the first. Australia got cleaned up for 120 in the first innings and again trailed (by 91 runs) once Sri Lanka had batted. Again Australia posted a large second innings total that set Sri Lanka 352 for victory. The Sri Lankans went close, eventually being bowled out 27 runs short. Although a dead rubber the final test would most likely be a contest as despite their losses Sri Lanka had dominated the first two tests for extended periods.
This final test did not go according to the script of the first two as Australia finally put in a solid first innings batting performance with 401. They still trailed on the first innings however (albeit by only 6 runs) that may be an interesting statistical question as to how often has a team won all tests in a series yet trailed each match on the first innings? Australia again batted well in the second innings with Justin Langer scoring 166 to leave Sri Lanka 370 to win with just over a day remaining. Sri Lanka fell 121 runs short to give Australia a 3-0 result.
This series in early 2004 must go down as one of the greatest played in the modern era despite the scoreline suggesting otherwise. Spectators were treated to the two greatest spin bowlers of all time going head to head and producing amazing results. Murali led both side's bowlers with a phenomenal 28 wickets in the three tests, and Warne was only slightly behind him on 26. The two greats took 54 wickets between them in the series; all 16 other bowlers used only captured 62!
So in late August and early September this year another chapter will be written in a great rivalry between sides not necessarily renowned as opponents of each other. Although test cricket between the two nations is only a product of the most recent 30 years the nations have an almost 130 year history in contesting cricket. The two sides this time are trotting out the line that they are re-building, but both seem to still be in no man's land between promoting young talent and exiting the old. Neither side has a player who immediately stands out as being likely to dominate this coming series. It should prove therefore to be a good contest and with attacking captaincy hopefully some great results to write into history.