Testing time: Australians to go on trial by spin in Galle

High above the pitch where Australia and Sri Lanka will duel for supremacy over the next two weeks, the ramparts of Galle’s Dutch fort look on impassively for whatever history is about to be made.

These ramparts will, should Australia succeed, likely become a part of the story, as they did after memorable Test match wins in 2004 and 2011.

Shane Warne bowls under the Dutch Fort in Galle during Australia’s Test match in 2004.Credit:Getty Images

On those occasions, victory had the players and staff decamping from the dressing room to the fort, belting out the team song while looking down on the stadium beneath. In 2004, the late Andrew Symonds and Shane Warne were central to it all, one as a debutant, the other as the matchwinner.

Seven years later, and Nathan Lyon made his first mark on Test cricket with seven wickets for the match at the start of Australia’s last series win in Asia until Pakistan this year. Trent Copeland was also on debut.

Lyon, Steve Smith and several others will recall, however, that Galle is not always quite so welcoming. The surface, dry, spinning and variable in bounce, requires high levels of skill and forbearance to conquer.

Sri Lankan spin, from Muttiah Muralitharan and Rangana Herath to the current crop of tweakers who delivered the hosts a one-day series victory over Australia, has defended Galle stoutly over the years.

Shane Warne, Andrew Symonds and selector Allan Border celebrate Australia’s 2004 Test win on the ramparts of the Galle fort.Credit:Jonathan Rose

But as haltingly as Australia performed in the limited-overs matches, there is evidence that the Test team leadership of Pat Cummins, coach Andrew McDonald and selection chair George Bailey have a fair sense of what is to come.

Perhaps the simplest way to put it is that most of the achievements of the Pakistan series, memorable as that was, have precious little relevance for Galle. In Rawalpindi, Karachi and Lahore, concrete flat strips made concentration the primary challenge for the batters, while the bowlers chipped away as if carving out a Test match win from granite itself.

What awaits in Sri Lanka instead, is a scenario whereby mere occupation may not always be enough. Calculated risks to go on the attack, spreading the fields and breaking up the lines and lengths of the spinners, will be vital.

Smith, who led Australia to Sri Lanka and a 3-0 hiding courtesy of Herath six years ago, has acknowledged the different scale of the task. Similarly, the selectors have shown that a balance between defence and attack – with both bat and ball – is in their thinking.

That’s why Glenn Maxwell has been chosen as injury cover for Travis Head despite not playing a first-class match since COVID-19 began. Sri Lanka would not have feared a Nic Maddinson, Henry Hunt or Matt Renshaw, but they will be kept awake by the thought of confronting Maxwell.

In 2011, Australia’s victory was underpinned by two superlative innings from Mike Hussey and Michael Clarke. Hussey swept, cut and drove with precision on the opening day of the series; Clarke used the depth of the crease with twinkling feet to ensure Sri Lanka were set an unreachable target.

Conditional concerns are also why the finger spin of Matt Kuhnemann and Jon Holland has edged ahead of Mitchell Swepson in calculations for Lyon’s spin partner. Without a fit Ashton Agar, accuracy and consistency, rather than sheer revolutions on the ball, is valued most highly. Swepson, used in Pakistan to try to extract life out of dead surfaces, may not be bowling consistently enough to clamp Sri Lankan scoring.

Playing Holland, who was flown out of a Melbourne winter without too much advance warning, would be a risk. In 2016, he was similarly drafted when Steve O’Keefe went down injured in Kandy, and struggled to drop the ball onto a challenging length.

Kuhnemann has at least taken part in the white-ball matches, after also bowling effectively for Australia A. Either way, a demotion for Swepson would appear to be likely.

Then again, Galle’s vagaries have been known to aid Australian pace in the past. Ryan Harris and Shane Watson bowled with distinction 11 years ago, attacking the stumps, with the occasional bouncer, making the most of reverse swing and variable bounce.

Mitchell Starc, too, was close to unplayable in 2016 – the only trouble being that Australia’s batting line-up was almost entirely without system and method. One of those haunted runmakers was Usman Khawaja, alongside Lyon the only member of the current team to have played in each of the past two Galle Tests.

Where Pakistan saw Khawaja accumulate runs with something like impunity, Sri Lanka will test his ability to adapt. More than anyone else, Khawaja knows the truth of succeeding in this part of the world – you can no more use one method to succeed in Asia than you can play the same way in Sydney as you do in Perth.

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