Unsung Suranga Lakmal, Sri Lanka’s best bowler in the post-Murali era, renounces gloom in search of a new dawn

Courtesy: Reuters

Ladies and gentlemen, Suranga Lakmal has announced his retirement. Sans much fanfare. Sans any media blitz. In a way, it is unfair on a bowler who has carried the entire weight of a fast-bowling attack on his own shoulders—shoulders for which the weight is ostensibly a few kilograms too many—for years. But, at the same time, this is also a microcosm of Lakmal’s career—a career that has been unheralded, underappreciated and taken for granted.

I see you looking at his Test average of 36.28, frowning, and wondering what all this fuss about his career is. But consider this: he averages 33 away from home which is only marginally worse than Chaminda Vaas’ 32.92. This average drops to 26 if you consider his record since 2016. His average in South Africa, England, New Zealand, Australia, and the West Indies is 33.98, which is better than Vaas’ 35.75 and is the second-best for a Sri Lankan bowler and the best for a fast bowler to have bowled in at least 20 innings.

It’s not that they matter but if it is a point of consideration to you, let me also tell you that he has four five-wicket hauls in these countries (one in each except in England). The only Sri Lankan fast bowler with more five-wicket hauls in these countries is Vaas. He has two more, but he had also played 6 more matches.

Accordingly, every piece of evidence points to the fact that he has been Sri Lanka’s best Test fast bowler since Vaas but this can easily be lost on someone who takes a casual look at his overall figures. Because overall figures give you, well, only the overall picture. They don’t tell you where a player started, what he braved, how much he improved, and what he eventually became. They don’t show us the complete character arc.

In Lakmal’s case, his overall figures don’t tell us that he was a late bloomer as he had to learn on the job. That he had to toil hard in conditions that were ill-suited for his type of bowling. And that, to top everything off, he was also a part of a dysfunctional team that was scraping the bottom of the barrel to find a winning formula that didn’t involve Muralitharan.

Sri Lanka is no country for fast bowlers, where upcoming players are poorly nourished and deprived of proper fitness facilities. The fast bowlers play first-class matches only to make up the numbers and get to bowl only a handful of overs often only for a formality. The pitches tend to be dry and barren, and start breaking up even before the start of a match.

As a result, Sri Lankan fast bowlers are prone to injuries and lack the stamina to even last the length of a Test match. They also don’t get to bowl long spells and consequently, are not endowed with the nous of setting batsmen up and constructing wickets.

Lakmal was no exception. The early part of his career is a story of his battles with poor stamina and injuries. He also had to go through a steep learning curve as he wasn’t gifted with the pace to blow oppositions away, nor was he endowed with the craft of buying wickets. This meant that, at a point, his Test average was a whopping 65.75.

However, things changed for good when Chaminda Vaas took over as Sri Lanka’s fast bowling coach in 2013. His impact was immediately felt as Lakmal managed to bowl 33 overs in an innings in Abu Dhabi in 2013, the most he had bowled in an innings thitherto. He would not only send down 130 overs in the three-match series in the scorching sun but would also pick up 12 wickets. However, the most important thing was that he was still in one piece at the conclusion of the series. This marked a pivotal moment in his career as his average dropped from 63.34 to 53.75. Lakmal had come of age.

In 2016, the boy finally became a man as Lakmal followed up a successful tour of Zimbabwe with an impressive outing in South Africa. He picked up a five-wicket haul in Port Elizabeth and a four-wicket haul in Cape Town, and his average came crashing down to 45. Since then, it has been one-way traffic for his bowling average as it has continued to decline, and Lakmal has been a different animal altogether.

It took Lakmal nearly six years to find and master what worked for him but in the meantime, his numbers had taken an irredeemable battering. However, this slow start to his career wasn’t his only trial. He faced an even bigger adversary in the form of home conditions.

It is telling about Sri Lankan conditions that only two fast bowlers have managed to play more than fifty Tests, one of whom is Lakmal himself. Apart from Lakmal, only three fast bowlers have managed to pick up more than 100 Test wickets but only Malinga and Vaas have managed to do it at a better average.

Sri Lanka has always been spinners’ la la land. But since 2015, you can observe a marked shift further in favor of spin bowling. Only 33.3% of the balls bowled in Sri Lanka since 2015 have been bowled by fast bowlers. Only Bangladesh has been more hostile to fast bowlers during this period.

Conditions have been so bad for fast bowlers that Lakmal himself went without bowling a single ball in an innings eight times in Sri Lanka, five of which came after 2018. The travesty that has befallen the fast bowlers in the island can be further elucidated by the fact that Lakmal himself was the captain of the side in two of those innings. It is for these reasons he averages worse at home than anywhere else.

If the home conditions defanged Lakmal, he didn’t get many opportunities in conditions that favored his skillset either. He managed to play only 23 matches in South Africa, England, New Zealand, Australia, and the West Indies. In comparison, Jasprit Bumrah has already played 25 games in these countries despite having made his debut only in 2018.

Another factor that played a major part in ruining Lakmal’s record is the team that he is a part of. Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan had retired when Lakmal made his debut and Malinga had already played his last Test. This meant that Lakmal’s formative years were in a team that had no experienced fast bowler to mentor or guide him. The attack had no leader and despite lacking in experience, Lakmal often had to step up. He didn’t have the luxury of having good bowlers building pressure from the other end either. Probably, in a better attack, Lakmal may have managed to pick up a few more wickets.

Consequently, it is not fair to judge Lakmal’s career without factoring in the constraints and tribulations he had to contend with. We need to appreciate the fact that in a team in abiding disarray, braving unsympathetic conditions, and hailing from a system that failed to prepare him for challenges in Tests, a raw, feeble fast bowler eventually became an accomplished fast bowler.

Recently, the outgoing head coach of Sri Lanka Mickey Arthur called Lakmal the Asian James Anderson. It is an exaggeration no doubt, but the comparison isn’t completely unwarranted either. Since 2019, Lakmal averages 22.48 in Tests, which is better than the averages of Kagiso Rabada, Mitchell Starc, Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Jasprit Bumrah, Stuart Broad, and James Anderson himself.

Add to this his ability to swing the ball away from right-handers and move it in occasionally, you could see that Arthur’s comparison isn’t completely misplaced. And when conditions failed to suit him, Lakmal also mastered the art of drying down runs by doggedly settling into a nagging line and length. In fact, since 2019, Lakmal has given away only 2.3 runs an over which is bettered only by Collin de Grandhomme and James Anderson who average 2.29 and 2.28 runs per over respectively.

However, Lakmal is neither express nor is he a tall, hit-the-deck bowler. He is neither an all-time great nor is he one of the bests of his time. His bowling lacks the glamour quotient of Malinga nor has he been a part of a team that could evoke jubilant memories like Vaas had been. And for these reasons, it is less likely that he will be spoken of in the same breath as Vaas or Malinga in Sri Lanka.

Here is where we need to understand the reality of this world. Not all of us are going to be the best at what we do. But we can all be the best we can be. For what Lakmal lacks in his build, he has made up through perseverance and hard work. His bowling might not be glamourous but it is industrious. His bowling might not have taken the world by storm but his rise in cricket has been metronomic. He was forced to swallow more than what he could chew, and we can confidently say that he never spat anything out. Lakmal punched above his weight, kept bettering himself, and eventually became the best he could ever become.

I would even go so far as to say that he has been Sri Lanka’s best bowler in the post-Murali era. Rangana Herath may have picked up more wickets, have a better average, and have won many games for Sri Lanka, but he didn’t have to spend most of his career bowling on pitches that offered him nothing, confront a system that failed to prepare him for Tests, and leave the biggest impact on pitches his batsmen could not cope up with, which eventually resulted in defeats.

Perhaps, if Lakmal had been a product of a better system that had taught him all that he had to learn on the job, bowled more in conditions that suited him, and played for a better team, it would have been the Lakmal since 2016 that we would have seen right from the beginning. Needless to say, his record would have looked much better as well. An abominable contract that shows the blasé attitude of the board towards his contribution, and an ailing economy have proven to be enough incentives for Lakmal to abandon this life in an unending shadow for greener pastures overseas, both literally and figuratively. Lakmal is currently at the peak of his prowess and maybe, just maybe, we might be able to give him the due recognition when he plies his trade in conditions that are tailor-made for his bowling. The limelight is waiting, Lakmal.