Sri Lanka, a diminutive island on the coast of South India, is heralded as the “pearl of the Indian ocean”. Spectacular wildlife, sparkling splendour and mouth-watering cuisine: it is a commodity like no other, a fragment of literal paradise. Uniqueness is a trait that runs deep into Sri Lankan culture and into their cricket.
From the extreme contortions of the cunning Muttiah Muralitharan to the stone-skimming slingers of Lasith Malinga and the lionhearted exuberance of Sanath Jayasuriya, these trailblazers do things “their own way”. Sri Lankan streets were teeming with talented kids playing in their own eccentric style; it was a way of life. Even amidst a dark age for Sri Lankan cricket, we have seen the likes of Matheesha ‘New Malinga’ Anushal and Kamindu Mendis, the man who can bowl with both hands, be inducted into the dynasty of unorthodoxy.
These exotic revolutionaries are recognised as the pride of the nation; ambassadors for the infinite capabilities of Sri Lankan people. But away from the limelight, there exists a more orthodox, unspectacular species who, through their toil and discipline, exemplify the deadliness of simplicity…
Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley: England’s opening pair for this Sri Lanka series. They honed their fundamental techniques on the flat, true wickets of Southern England. If there was any assistance for the bowlers at all, it was perennially a bit of lateral movement for the quicks and that was only due to some cloudy weather. As Sibley and Crawley plied their trade in the county game, they were grew increasingly proficient at negating swing, seam and pace. This experience certainly helped when Crawley racked up a monumental 267 against Pakistan at home and when Sibley scored the 1st of his 2 test centuries in Newlands.
However, other than the odd Taunton raging turner, they were never exposed to the prospect of facing a wily spinner on an absolute dustbowl. Sibley and Crawley’s prior encounter with a spinner was probably smacking him all over the place on a pitch that didn’t even offer a mere iota of turn. Now they were heading to Sri Lanka, a land of spinners galore.
Ahead of the tour, Sibley and Crawley must have felt reasonably confident, as they should; they had refined their techniques in Loughborough’s winter nets which replicated the daunting Sri Lankan conditions. And besides, Sri Lanka is a mere silhouette of the force of old. What could possibly go wrong?
Lasith Embuldeniya smiled. Crawley and Sibley frowned. The left-arm spinner was handed the new ball. Haunting memories of the 1st test flooded Sibley’s psyche; both him and Crawley were decimated in both innings by the unassuming Embuldeniya. Would it happen again? Swiftly, he shrugged of such thoughts and reassured himself that the 1st test was just a minor blip. It certainly would not happen again.
Embuldeniya smiled again. He sensed doubt fatally tip-toeing into Sibley’s conscience and blurring his conviction. The end result was inevitable. These 2 English openers may be invincible on their home turf but for now, they are as vulnerable as hapless sheep.
Embuldeniya’s plan was a simple one. He was to flight the ball onto a selected spot and never budge from that line and length. Simple. He may slightly alter his pace or angle at the crease but Embuldeniya would never change his line and length. Let the pitch do the talking.
Lasith Embuldeniya set off on his shuffling run-up. His action was uncluttered, uncomplicated and had no air of extravagance about it. The ball was delivered. The hint of picturesque drift that lulled the batsman into a false sense of security. The seam was constantly swirling and twirling as the ball was flighted generously into the Galle sky. It dipped ferociously. It deflected irregularly of the pitch. Sibley was utterly confounded. The ball had spun a literal mile. The men around the bat chattered excitedly in Sinhalese as anticipation mounted.
To go back or to go forward, that is the question. Sibley and Crawley’s main conundrum was their indecisive footwork against Embuldeniya’s drift, dip and flight. The more they pondered, the more their feet got stuck in mud. Dots accumulated and the predestined was fufilled.
Embuldeniya delivered a ball that was much fuller than the others. Flustered, Sibley blindly pushed back into the crease and was struck on the pads. He was gone. Not long later, Embuldeniya crafted the model left-arm spinners’ and snared the edge of Zak Crawley’s blade with a deceiving, unfathomable ball. The deed was done; Lasith Embuldeniya dismissed both the England openers 3 times in 3 innings.
There is nothing threatening about Embuldeniya. His left-arm spin looks unremarkable to the casual viewer but it is the sheer lack of complexity to his bowling that makes him so devastating and extraordinary. Both Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley knew what he was doing yet they were fruitless in their endeavours to conquer him.
Embuldeniya is by no means the finished product as Joe Root effortlessly milked him for runs in this series with his dainty assortment of sweeps and paddles. It also helped that Sibley and Crawley were quite frankly hopeless against him. But he is only 24 years of age, plenty of time to grasp further nuances about his craft. With sufficient guidance and support, he could prove a priceless asset for Sri Lanka.
As his fledgling career progresses, Embuldeniya may be compared to the Rangana Herath, the best left arm spinner of them all, and there is much he can learn from the great man. But, he must always remember to do things “his own way”, the Sri Lankan way.