Sri Lanka’s chronic quandary over number three: What are the solutions?

Despite having a number of top order batsmen in the Test lineup, Sri Lanka has struggled to find someone who could be consistent at number three.

Sri Lanka has struggled to find a batsman who could make the number three position in the team his own ever since the retirement of Kumar Sangakkara. The team has tried several players as diverse as Lahiru Thirimanne, Udara Jayasundara, and Upul Tharanga, but the outcome has not been hunky dory. Even though Kusal Mendis offered some promise, his innings of 176 against Australia convinced the selectors that he should be batting at number four. Kusal Perera was experimented with next, but his continuous failures resulted in he getting the boot too.

A simple solution to the current impasse over the number three position is to drop Kusal Perera permanently from number three as the team has already done, which is more due to he being unsuitable for that position than his own fault, and find a proper number three. Sri Lanka can try Udara Jayasundara, who fared decently in New Zealand and England with the A team, or Roshen Silva, who averages just over fifty in first-class cricket and has scored well with the A team in New Zealand and England.

But Sri Lanka taking Upul Tharanga, a batsman who flounders even against run-of-the-mill fast bowlers, shows that the team was vacuous in their attitude towards the number three position. There is no way in which a Test team could have expected either Kusal Perera or Upul Tharanga to do well at number three.

Another possible option is to promote Dhananjaya de Silva to number three. But the team should be wary of the fact that de Silva collected scores of 35,12,5 and 88 opening the batting for the Sri Lanka A team in New Zealand and England. His performance as an opener in the Sri Lankan domestic matches, where fast bowlers are used less than drinks carriers, cannot be considered as an indication of how well he will perform against good quality swing and seam bowling. There is also the danger of putting a blossoming batsman under undue pressure, which could be fatal as far as his career is concerned.

However, it should be acknowledged that number seven should not be a long term batting position for a batsman who is as good as de Silva. Sri Lanka’s coach Graham Ford spoke about the peril of de Silva running out of partners when he bats at number seven. Even though Ford intimated about Sri Lanka having an extra batsman when Dilruwan Perera plays, which is a slight suggestion that he is content with de Silva batting at number seven as long as Dilruwan bats at number eight, it should be noted the de Silva scored most of his runs against Australia batting with Dinesh Chandimal. Only in one innings did Dilruwan Perera fare well with the bat. So, if none of the first six batsmen are going to last long with de Silva, Sri Lanka might end up wasting de Silva’s batting ability.

It is precisely for this reason, that Test teams prefer either to have their wicketkeepers or all-rounders bat at number seven. This will ensure that there is a batsman who can bat with number six and if in case the number seven runs out of partners, he could still be of use to the team as a wicketkeeper or as a bowler.

Sri Lanka doesn’t have a genuine all-rounder among their batsmen, so it is natural to expect Dinesh Chandimal to move to number seven, allowing de Silva to bat at six. But Chandimal, despite the fact that he keeps wicket, is too valuable a batsman to be wasted at number seven.

Thus, Sri Lanka cannot afford to bring in a new number three since that would mean de Silva will have to continue to bat at number seven. Dhananjaya de Silva cannot be moved to number three either as he has not fared well against the new ball in England and New Zealand. One way of solving this predicament is to push Kusal Mendis to number three permanently.

Though Mendis averages the highest at number four, his performance there is not categorically better than his performance at number three. It is noteworthy that his 176 against Australia has distended his average at number four heavily so much so that his average takes a steep dip to 25.67 when his innings of 176 is discounted. Another case in favor of Mendis batting at number three is that, even though Mendis scored his highest score at number four, he came to bat during the third over when Sri Lanka had scored only six runs, a scenario that is usually faced by a number three.

This would allow de Silva to bat at number four- a position that will both allow the team to maximize his batting ability and shield him from the new ball. Sri Lanka can play Kusal Perera at the vacant number seven spot, which will relieve the burden of keeping wickets off Chandimal’s shoulders allowing him to concentrate on his batting entirely.

At the same time, Sri Lanka should also be heedful about the fact that keeping wickets has not in any way affected Chandimal’s ability to score runs at number six, which is evident from his gargantuan average there. Not many teams have the luxury of having one their main batsmen perform the role of the wicketkeeper, and as such, Chandimal’s dual ability gives Sri Lanka the versatility of playing an extra batsman or an all-rounder.

Sri Lanka played Tharanga at number seven in the second Test, but as discussed earlier, playing a specialist batsman at number seven cannot be a long-term option for Sri Lanka since given the brittle nature of the Sri Lankan tail, the batting ability of the number seven cannot be maximized more often than not.

As mentioned in the article earlier, playing a batsman at number seven would be wasteful, and hence, in the future, Sri Lanka could use the number seven slot to play an all-rounder.Playing a spin bowling all-rounder at number seven, for instance, could allow the team to play four fast bowlers when touring overseas. For the time being, there is an absence of test quality all-rounders in Sri Lanka, and playing an all-rounder for the sake of playing one can be counter-productive. As for now, Sri Lanka can be happy with playing Kusal Perera there over Upul Tharanga since Kusal can at least relieve Chandimal of keeping wickets, if in case he is going to run out of partners at number seven, but the possibility of playing an all-rounder should not be shunned completely.