The History of Australian Cricket in Sri Lanka

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With only a week to go until the Australia tour of Sri Lanka, Ben Roberts looks back at the rich history between the two countries dating back to when they were Ceylon.

Sri Lanka, like most former and remaining British colonies, accepted cricket from the earliest time of colonisation as its national sport. Like most British colonies as well they have eventually turned over their former colonial masters at the game closest to their heart. Australia visits Sri Lanka this August and September for the 5th time for a full test series. However for almost 100 years prior to Australia’s first visit for test matches in 1982-83, Australian teams of various forms were regular visitors to Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon until 1972).

During International crickets formative years of the late 19th century both the travelling Australian and English cricket teams would stop off at the island nation to stretch the legs and take in some cricket against the local teams and representative sides. The local cricketing scene is also well established in history. The Colombo CC, still part of the first class structure today, has a formation date prior to Australia’s Melbourne Cricket Club by five years.

In 1884 the Australian tourists stopped in at Ceylon on the way to England and played an ‘odds’ match as a XI against a Ceylon XVIII. This first match saw Australia take first innings honours in a single day match that was drawn. The tourists also called in again for a return match later in the year on the way home, this time playing as a XIII in a single day match against a Ceylon XVIII with a consistent result. Some sources have identified Australia as ‘winning easily’, though the scorecards available only point towards both results being draws. Given that both encounters were at odds, and Australia at the very least had the better of them, it is reasonable to deduce that the Ceylon cricket team required improvement at this stage.

This improvement however did not take long. Infamous for its misbehaviour, the 1890 Australians stopped in at Ceylon on their route by sea to England playing for the first time a non-odds match against Ceylon. Once again Australia had the better of a single day encounter forcing Ceylon to follow-on after the first innings before the match was drawn. Neither of these first three matches against Ceylon were considered first-class.

Somewhat traditionally Australian teams kept visiting Ceylon en-route to and from England; the years 1893, 1896, 1912, 1926, 1930, and 1934 had the Australians visit. But it wasn’t until 1935 that a match was played that was considered first-class. New South Wales had toured itself during these earlier years and beaten the national side to the punch. In 1935 a unique tour was conducted by an Australian XI of both India and Ceylon.

This tour was unique in that it wasn’t the full strength Australian team – it was in the process of touring South Africa at the time. Not only this but the team also was limited to selecting players not involved in the Sheffield Shield during the same season. The team ended up an invited group (by the Maharajah of Patalia) of lower grade cricketers together with retired former greats including Jack Ryder, Bert Ironmonger and Charlie Macartney. So strange (and perhaps controversial) was this tour that this team of Australians were under strict instructions to not entertain any ideas of a ‘test-like match’ against an All India side.

In the only first-class match against Ceylon, a three day encounter in Colombo, the Australians triumphed by an innings and 127 runs. Replying to Ceylon’s first innings of 96 the Australians were bowled out for 334 before bowling out Ceylon again for 111. Overall this cobbled together team of former greats and cricketing nobodies played 17 first class matches in India and Ceylon.

In ensuing years the world was again at war and first-class cricket was soon suspended. Players from all countries joined up to contest a fight on fields far different from those they had played cricket on. Soon upon the conclusion of hostilities the authorities in England were quick to arrange top quality cricket for the benefit of a nation’s spirit wrecked by war. These encounters famously were known as the ‘Victory Tests’ between the Australian and English Services teams.

To show the appreciation of a nation to its colonial outposts the Australian team continued to play fixtures considered first-class on their way home through the colonised subcontinent and when arriving in Australia. In the Australian Services match against Ceylon the great but as yet uncapped Keith Miller stroked 132 in an innings victory. Miller was lauded by team mates, opponents and Wisden for his play throughout the entire series of services matches. Miller’s attitude, borne out in later rhetoric, removing all similarity one might have made between war and sporting pursuits, granted Miller freedom to make his mark on world cricket before he had played a test.

Continued visits occurred throughout the 50s and 60s by Australia, but all non first-class. The lack of willingness to invest time and money in an extended match potentially reflected a lack of faith in Ceylon’s ability to compete as well as the financial desire to play as much cricket in England as possible therefore limiting any time spent in Ceylon.

The season of 1969-70 saw Bill Lawry lead Australia on an ill fated tour to India and Ceylon, and then onto South Africa where the final nails in his captaincy coffin began to be hammered in. This was the final time Australia opposed a team named Ceylon. Albeit overshadowed by the test matches to come, Jack Pollard noted in his ‘Illustrated History of Australian Cricket’ that a belief existed among the Australians that Ceylon were rapidly improving. The result was Australia and Ceylon playing out a drawn three day match.

This improvement was noted by world cricketing authorities as they began to invite the now Sri Lankan cricket team to more international tournaments. The advent of international one-day cricket saw Sri Lanka invited to the first two World Cups despite having not as yet been granted test match status. With the draw card of South Africa removed from cricket for its apartheid policies, there was a need for international cricket to expand beyond its limited membership.

Having not visited at all since 1969 the Australians on their way to the 1981 Ashes series stopped over in Sri Lanka for some limited over international matches and one first class test. In the four-day match Sri Lanka had the better of a draw with the Australians bowled out for 124 and the hosts taking a first innings lead with a total of 177. Australia didn’t redeem itself in the second innings being dismissed for 178 before time ran out. This was just months before Sri Lanka were admitted as a full test playing nation.

The 1982 volume of Wisden heralded the granting of Sri Lanka full test status with praise. Even with their admission the total number of test playing nations was only seven (with South Africa still excluded). The early comment by Wisden of the Sri Lankan’s cricket was of it being engaging, open, and ultimately welcome in the cricket world. Australia toured for test cricket for the first time with a one-test series in the season of 1982-83.

Despite much appreciation for the style of cricket that the Sri Lankans played, their first test match against Australia  was memorable for the beating they received. Australia won the toss and batted at Kandy, declaring their first innings closed on 513 for the loss of only four wickets. The late David Hookes scored the only century of a career that never lived up to expectation. Hookes was joined in the runs by Kepler Wessals as the other centurion, by the end of the innings it became very much a mismatch as Australia took apart a tiring bowling attack.

The pitch at Kandy was slow with Australia’s spinner Bruce Yardley taking five wickets in Sri Lanka’s first innings of 271. Of great irony is that a nemesis of Australian cricket in the mid nineties, Arjuna Ranatunga, was in the formative stages of his career at this point and top scored for the hosts in the first innings with 90. In the second innings it was the left arm orthodox spin of Tom Hogan that took 5 wickets as Australia bowled themselves to an innings victory by dismissing the Sri Lankans for 205.

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.

Ben contributes regularly to the following two Blogs:
Balanced Sports РThe thinking fans sport opinion and analysis site.
Books with Balls – Reviewing the literature of a number of genres but definitely no Danielle Steele.


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