Steve Waugh's team has drawn comparisons with great teams like Don Bradman's "1948 Invincibles," Ian Chappell's 1972 squad or Clive Lloyd's team of 1984. The debate of the year is clearly whether Hansie Cronje's South Africans can blunt the onslaught of the Aussies at home in the coming tour.
Amidst this tussle for the top slot in world cricket between the Proteas and the Aussies, there seems to be no place for the Sri Lankans, who have had a quiet revival. A revival that was confirmed after Sanath Jayasuriya led his team to a 3-0 one-day series win, followed by two Test victories over hosts Pakistan in the just concluded tour.
In fact, Sri Lanka have won eight of their last 18 Tests since February 1998. They beat England in England in 1998, the visiting Australians soon after the 1999 World Cup and triumphed over Zimbabwe in both the one-days and the Tests last December.
Sri Lanka is clearly the best cricket team in Asia even though it is statistically challenged, player for player, as compared to its neighbours India and Pakistan.
Sri Lanka has only two players in the 4,000 Test runs club (Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda De Silva) and only one bowler who has taken 200 Test wickets (Muttiah Muralitharan). Three of its middle order batsmen have together played fewer than 40 Test matches.
The recent spate of wins are a remarkable turnaround since the team lost 15 of their 18 one-day matches prior to its disastrous World Cup campaign.
The furious factional infighting in the Sri Lankan Cricket Board over the past 18 months makes the team's performance all the more exceptional.
Jayasuriya's bunch can now vie with New Zealand for the No. 3 spot in world cricket.
The Lankan success formula is beguilingly simple. They have an inspirational captain who evokes awe in the youthful team, who combines well with the tough-talking tactician coach Dave Whatmore, a couple of committed batsmen as sheet anchors: strokeplayers Jayasuriya, De Silva and Romesh Kaluwitharana keep the scoreboard moving, while off spinner Muralitharan operates as the sole match winner.
Jayasuriya obviously enjoys the respect of his team owing to his stature in world cricket. Being a lot younger than his predecessor Ranatunga, he gets along better with his teammates, who naturally imbibe his evident zest for the game.
He and Whatmore, who was reinstated as coach after the World Cup, have managed to arrest the sense of drift evident during Ranatunga's tenure, when the team looked one that was killing time between World Cups. Sri Lanka have begun to take themselves seriously as a Test-playing country moving beyond its identity as a one-day specialist.
This it achieved not through a major overhaul in personnel but by instilling the discipline of playing to its strengths and a plan - a feature missing from Pakistan and India who possess a great deal of collective flair.
Simply put, the team makes sure that it reaches a 250 plus score in Tests and hopes that Muralitharan, who has a reputation of being able to turn a ball even on a glass surface, ties down one end by throttling the runs and end up with four or five wickets. Others, like fast bowler Chaminda Vaas, can chip in with the odd wicket. On the batting side, it has been well served by the persevering Marvan Atapattu, who is fast performing the role that Sunil Gavaskar did for the Indian team in the 1970s.
Atapattu has a prolific appetite for runs in both versions of the game and, even when he does not notch a huge score, makes sure that he occupies the crease for a good deal of time.
Russel Arnold is another in the same mould, tenacious and eager to succeed after a poor start in international cricket. These two allow Jayasuriya and De Silva to play their natural game though the former has not got into the groove of making major contribution with the bat. Kaluwitharana too has struck form and makes vital contribution such as the time he forged a crucial 43-run partnership with Ranatunga in the first Test against Pakistan after the team slumped to 177 for eight whilst chasing 220 to win.
The talented Mahela Jayawardene has been a disappointment during the season even though he sustains an impressive Test average of 42, but the management has persisted with him wisely. Muralitharan has for long been the lone bowling match-winner for the team, in the fashion of Malcolm Marshall for the Windies in the mid-1980s.
His strike rate of 64.2 is a touch better than Shane Warne's 64.7. He has taken 245 Test wickets in 50 Tests and should match Warne's feat of achieving 355 wickets in 81 matches. He has taken five wickets in an innings 18 times, two more than the Aussie, and has like Warne taken 10 wickets in a Test four times, despite playing 30 Tests fewer than the antipodean. Warne has a better strike rate in one-dayers taking 216 wickets while Muralitharan has 183 victims at a more economical rate.
Muralitharan's genius, like Warne, is in the amount of turn that he generates thanks to his peculiar simultaneous roll and whip of the wrist.
His bowling average in Tests is only 0.46 higher than Warne owing to his lot heavier workload. Fitness permitting and a reasonable Test itinerary, Muralitharan looks set to cross to 400-wicket mark.
Sri Lanka has demonstrated the wisdom of playing to its limited strength combined with a youthful zest for hunger and keenness in fielding.
In doing so it is ruthless in selecting the playing eleven, choosing different partners for Vaas, often choosing two options between the lanky Nuwan Zoysa, the energetic but erratic Ravindra Pushpakumara and the steady Pramodya Wickremasinghe. They are overdependent on Muralitharan in the Tests, but their recent one-day record shows that cohesion within the team and diligent application can do the trick just as well.
India Abroad News Service