Sri Lanka’s batting struggle in Tests is not reserved only to overseas matches.

Batting collapses in overseas Test series are nothing new to Sri Lanka. It has been happening for a very long time. Even though the absence of both Sangakkara and Jayawardene is highlighted as the major reason for Sri Lanka’s parlous batting in overseas Test matches, the team was never immune to batting collapses even during the duumvirate’s halcyon days.

Even when Sri Lanka toured South Africa in 2011 with a team that had Sangakkara, Mahela, Dilshan and Samaraweera in it, they managed only 180 and 150 in their first two innings in the Rainbow nation. However, the team came from behind to win the second Test match and in the third, even though the batsmen were not brilliant, their performances were not a mortification.

Yet, Sri Lanka’s current batting woes cannot be brushed under the carpet in the pretext of history. The humiliation that was foisted on Sri Lanka in South Africa wasn’t just a one-off episode. Their batting has already let them down twice in New Zealand and once in England. Sri Lanka’s performance against Australia could be used as a veil to gloss over the ramshackle engine of the team, but it should be remembered that the top order continued to fail in that series and the whitewash was the result of good batting performances from the young Kusal Mendis and Dhananjaya de Silva, and the unrivalled efforts of the spinners.

We love to think that we are strong at home, but we should remember we lost to both Pakistan and India at home not too long ago. Our batting wasn’t exceptional in those series either. Sri Lanka crumbled to scores of 206, 183, 134 and 201 in that home season. No, the batting struggle is not just limited to overseas Test matches.

Is poor batting in Tests only a recent phenomenon?

It is natural to think that this is a very recent phenomenon. It will take an extensive statistical research to find out how often Sri Lanka’s batting collapsed in their Test history. This will be counter-productive. Hence, we shall take a look at the number of times the team’s batting folded below 200 in an innings, the logic behind this being that the frequency of sub 200 scores might give a fair idea about Sri Lanka’s batting stability during different eras. This is not to mean that every batting collapse would lead to a score that is below 200. For instance, Sri Lanka lost 6 wickets for just 74 runs in the first innings of the first Test against Pakistan in 2015, but the team’s final score read 300. The goal here is to find whether the team had a habit of collapsing often in the past.

Number of scores under 200 by year since Test debut

Not so surprisingly, it could be observed that the batting collapses are indeed very recent. Sri Lanka foundered for a score of below 200 4 times each in both 2015 and 2016. In 2017, they have already notched up three scores of below 200 in four innings. The last time Sri Lanka had more scores of below 200 was in 2011. Before that, Sri Lanka collapsed under 200 five times in 2006.

What is common about all those years is that Sri Lanka played a lot of overseas Tests during those periods. In fact, 4 of the 5 collapses in 2006 and 5 of the 7 collapses in 2011 came in overseas Tests. So, one might argue that Sri Lanka’s current batting travails are predictable since Sri Lanka has been touring consistently in recent times.

Nonetheless, Sri Lanka has crumbled under 200 at home once in 2016 and twice in 2015. The last time when Sri Lanka scored below 200 at home twice or more was in 2011. Thus, in spite of collapses overseas being rather customary for Sri Lanka, collapses at home are alarming and in fact evince a recent anomaly that is plaguing the team.

Sri Lanka’s first score of under 200 in two years during the period between 2013 and 2014 was posted in New Zealand. That was the first of the 12 scores of under 200 to come hitherto. Hence, it is logical to analyse Sri Lanka’s Test batting performance from that period to decipher the actual reasons behind Sri Lanka’s struggle with the bat.

What is behind Sri Lanka’s struggle with the bat?

The first thing that stands out about Sri Lanka’s first score of under 200 in a very long time in New Zealand was that it was Sri Lanka’s first Test without the services of Mahela Jayawardene. Even though the collapse was more due to the conditions in New Zealand than anything else, the Test series at home that succeeded the New Zealand series showed that the batsmen struggle even in familiar conditions.

Sri Lanka had performed fairly well even without consistent contributions from Mahela Jayawardene in the Test series against Pakistan in 2013 and 2014, in England in 2014, and against South Africa in 2014. So, ostensibly, it is not Mahela’s batting that Sri Lanka has been missing so much as his presence in the team.

It is increasingly becoming obvious that Sri Lanka’s leadership is devoid of any passion. The team is fully immersed in a sea of negativity and the players often look uninspired. The indolent style of cricket Sri Lanka has been playing for some time has taken its toll on batting too. It is very difficult to find the actual cause for Sri Lanka’s atychiphobia, but its origin could be traced back to Sri Lanka’s whitewash in India in 2014. Whether Sri Lanka lacks Mahela’s inspiring leadership or the team is yet to recover from the Posttraumatic Stress Disorder following the fatal tour of India is moot. Jerome Jayaratne, Sri Lanka’s interim coach following Marvan Atapattu’s resignation, sounded out Sri Lankan players’ negative mindset. “If you don’t find the means to psychologically enjoy fielding, you will never be a good fielder,” said Jerome Jayaratne in an interview with ESPNCricinfo.

The same could be said about Sri Lanka’s struggle with the bat. The batsmen are often enveloped by an inexplicable fear that their natural game is often afflicted. The fact that it was Kusal Mendis and Dhananjaya de Silva, two batsmen who were new to the setup, who stood out with the bat in the series against Australia shows that there is something fundamentally wrong with the team’s setup.

Even though Mathews claimed during the South African series that the batsmen got out trying to be aggressive, stats show otherwise. The idea the team has about aggression seems to be a very skewed one as their aggression in the second innings of the second Test in New Zealand in 2015 exemplifies.

Though it should be admitted that most of the batsmen in South Africa got out playing at balls they could have simply left alone, that was hardly a causative factor so much as a consequence of a critical underlying problem. Several Sri Lankan batsmen spoke about the need to leave a lot of balls, but their continuous failure to do so further corroborates this argument.

Is aggression the real reason?

Empirically, South African batsmen were more positive and proactive than the Sri Lankan batsmen. Yet, the Sri Lankan team somehow believed that they were aggressive. As aforementioned, the team might be harbouring a very myopic perspective about aggression, viz., perceiving aggression as hitting boundaries. However, in actuality, aggression is often reflected in the mindset and the body language of the team. From the way Sri Lanka batted, it could be easily observed that the team was not really positive. The South African bowlers were continued to be allowed to bowl according to their strengths and nothing from Sri Lankan batsmen’s part was done to offset or counter the African bowlers’ plans. In short, the Proteas fast bowlers were allowed to build pressure and the Sri Lankan batsmen kept being defensive allowing the bowlers to dictate terms.

The number of runs Sri Lanka scored in an innings can be seen increasing with the increase in the percentage of balls scored off. (Stats only include Test matches from the 26th of December, 2014 to the 18th of January, 2016)

On average, Sri Lanka scored off 22.45% of all balls they faced, which is in direct contrast to South Africa’s 32.57%. 58.97% of Sri Lanka’s total runs came in boundaries, whereas South Africa scored only 47.62% of their runs in boundaries. We can draw two conclusions from the above numbers: Sri Lanka played more dot balls than South Africa and Sri Lanka rotated their strike less than South Africa did.

This, however, is not a problem Sri Lanka faced exclusively in South Africa. Since Sri Lanka’s tour of New Zealand in 2014, Sri Lanka has scored off only 24.53% of all balls they faced in comparison to their oppositions scoring off 29.5% off all balls they faced. 52.43% of Sri Lanka’s runs have come in boundaries while Sri Lanka’s oppositions have scored 46.44% of their total runs in boundaries.

The number of runs scored in an innings decrease with the increase in the percentage of runs scored in boundaries. (Stats only include Test matches from the 26th of December, 2014 to the 18th of January, 2016)

Much of Sri Lanka’s batting ordeal has been due to the batsmen’s inability to rotate strike. They have become accustomed to relying on boundaries to score much of their runs, which explains why the Sri Lankan batsmen perished in South Africa trying to play away from their bodies.

Therefore, it is no wonder that in the innings in which Sri Lanka has scored well, the percentage of balls that were scored off has been higher than average. When Sri Lanka scored 353 in the 2nd innings of the first Test against Australia, 30.78% of the balls were hit for runs. In contrast, in South Africa, Sri Lanka scored off only 22.7%, 21.21%,17.37%,24.06%, 20.44% and 28.90% of the balls they faced in each of their six innings respectively. Their reliance on boundaries was also very high. 55.96%, 54.54%, 62.62%, 57.82%, 60.47% and 62.42% of the runs in each of their six innings, respectively, were scored off boundaries.

Predictably, the total runs Sri Lanka scored in an innings has increased with an increase in the percentage of balls scored off and a decrease in the percentage of runs scored in boundaries. As numbers elucidate, the percentage of balls scored off has been inversely proportional to the percentage of runs scored in boundaries.

The percentage of runs scored in boundaries decrease with the increase in the percentage of balls scored off. (Stats only include Test matches from the 26th of December, 2014 to the 18th of January, 2016)

Are Sri Lankan batsmen actually aggressive?

This data, to an extent, clearly underlines the cause for Sri Lanka’s struggle with the bat in Tests. Although the South African tour can be easily snubbed adducing Sri Lanka’s historic struggle in the African country, Sri Lanka’s struggle against India and Pakistan at home should not easily be forgotten.

The first Test against Australia in Kandy actually makes for an interesting case study of Sri Lanka’s batting strategies. Following a demoralising rout in the hands of the English bowlers in England, Sri Lanka began their home series against Australia in a very defensive tone. The Australian bowlers, on a very placid surface, forced the play on the Sri Lankan batsmen. The Australian bowlers kept pushing the batsmen by bouts of short balls and then, sans warning, pitched the ball up drawing the unsuspecting batsmen forward in a hurry.

The passive nature of batsmen resulted in Australian bowlers executing their plans without even a modicum of challenge from the batsmen. The local batsmen, not knowing whether to move forward or backward, eventually succumbed to the mounting pressure. The team managed only 117.

In the second innings, however, Kusal Mendis’s exuberant batting reversed the pressure on the Aussie bowlers and they were forced to respond to Mendis’s belligerence by amending their plans. The youngster’s energy rubbed off on to the rest of the batsmen as Sri Lanka’s batting never looked out of sorts in that series again, save for the top order collapses.

Thus, Sri Lanka’s batting agony could be blamed on the team’s collective pessimism. So much time was spent on cooking up a plan to survive the South African bowlers that hardly any time seem to have been spent on devising a ploy to put pressure back on them. Aggression, as the Sri Lankans think, doesn’t really mean treading down the perilous path of hitting bowlers to the boundary. Even a defensive shot can be a gesture of aggression if it is played with a firm conviction. But seemingly the islanders were tentative with every stroke they played. They kept defending the South African bowlers until the pressure mounting on them became untenable that they were lured into false strokes to relieve the pressure by the bowlers.

What could be the solution?

Sri Lanka doesn’t need to look too far for a solution. Kusal Mendis, in the 2nd Sri Lankan innings of the third Test match versus South Africa, kept adjusting his guards, kept going back into his crease and then came waltzing down the pitch, and completely obfuscated Vernon Philander, of all bowlers, so much so that the ace South African bowler was forced to pitch the ball shorter than he would have liked to, to counter the rookie batsman. Here is a Sri Lankan batsman, in the face of adversity, pushing a rampaging bowler out of his comfort zone by inflicting heavy damage on his rhythm and thereby pre-empting any thoughts of picking up a wicket taking roots in his mind.

Bangladesh’s head coach had told Imrul Kayes during a training camp “to be prepared to play the cut and pull, and then maybe take singles off good balls” so that the “body will always be positive and you will react quickly.” There cannot be a more pertinent side for that advice than Sri Lanka.

As the team loves to think, aggression is not Sri Lanka’s Achilles heel but rather the lack thereof. The team needs to defend with resolute intent, push good balls for singles and then they might not be getting sucked into playing at balls outside their body. Or perhaps, the sanguine attitude might help their bodies react quickly and thus, play those loose balls with confidence and a lot of conviction.