Who should be Sri Lanka’s first choice left-arm spinner between Embuldeniya and Jayawickrama?

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Courtesy: AFP

One bowler picked up a five-wicket haul in his debut Test match in South Africa. The other bowler returned an eleven-wicket match figure in his debut to lead his team to a win against Bangladesh. Impressive as their debuts might be, and though the healthy rivalry between these two southpaws could bring the best out of both, Sri Lanka might soon be forced to pick one between the two. After all, Sri Lanka will not have the luxury of playing both overseas, and even if they get to continue playing them together at home, Sri Lanka will have to decide who the lead spinner is going to be and who is going to play the second fiddle. In other words, Sri Lanka need to decide who is going to be their first choice left-arm spinner.

The more experienced of the two, Embuldeniya, has already picked up 57 Test wickets. His towering figure and high-arm action allow him to extract steep bounce and sharp dip.

Praveen Jayawickrama, on the other hand, is a lot shorter and bowls with a slightly round-arm action. However, unlike Embuldeniya, Jayawickrama uses his bowling shoulder a lot more and imparts more revs on the ball, which helps him extract more turn.

Both have their own set of admirers. Embuldeniya is seen as a purist straight from the school of orthodoxy exercising the conventional skills of a spinner—loop and dip—from a high-arm action. Jayawickrama’s round-arm action and flatter trajectory have made him seem heretical in the eyes of Embuldeniya’s admirers although his ability to get the ball to turn more has won him his own set of supporters.

So, who should Sri Lanka crown as their lead left-arm spinner? This might seem like a difficult question, but it should not be that way.

To quote Graeme Swann, “if you are a spinner, you spin the ball”. Consequently, the answer to the question of who spins the ball more will also answer the question of who Sri Lanka should coronate. And this is straightforward. It should undoubtedly be Praveen Jayawickrama.

Lasith Embuldeniya hardly puts his body behind the ball, and this does not allow him to impart many revs on the ball. This means that he does not actually get much turn off the surface. Jayawickrama, however, pivots more and uses his shoulder to good effect, allowing him to spin the ball more and, as a result, turn the ball more. This can be proven by the fact that Jayawickrama has managed to find an average of 1.67 degrees of turn in the ongoing Test against the West Indies, whereas Embuldeniya has managed to find only 1.09 degrees of turn. The only spinner who has turned less than Embuldeniya is Roston Chase, who is a batting all-rounder.

Embuldeniya has also struggled with his accuracy as he has frequently erred on his line and length. Even though Jayawickrama has also been guilty of the same, he has been comparatively more accurate. To top everything off, Embuldeniya has also struggled with his front foot as he has bowled a whopping 7 no-balls in the series and Jayawickrama has committed this sin only once.

More turn and better accuracy would naturally make you a better spinner. And the numbers back this claim. In the current Test series against the West Indies, Jayawickrama averages 18.14 in contrast to Embuldeniya’s 25.87.

Although the numbers paint one picture, the perception seems to paint a completely different picture. The fact that Embuldeniya has bowled 96 overs so far in this series while Jayawickrama has managed only 58.5 overs shows who seems to be the team’s favorite. To understand why, we only need to look at what the Sri Lankan commentators had to say during the match.

Throughout day 3 of the second Test match, the Sri Lankan commentators were cynical about Jayawickrama’s round-arm action and the flatter trajectory of his deliveries while exalting Embuldeniya as a quintessential spinner with a good-looking action worth emulating. Often, the takes of the Sri Lankan commentators serve as a good proxy for the thought process of the Sri Lankan management since they have all been cut from the same cloth.

However, it is one thing to have a good-looking action but another thing to have an effective action. If Embuldeniya has a better-looking action and bowls a better trajectory than Jayawickrama, then why does he struggle to impart more revs on the ball, and subsequently find more turn?

Here, it should be mentioned that Jayawickrama is not intransigently flatter. He does flight the ball but since he varies the trajectory of the ball often, his ability to flight the ball is lost on the casual observers. Perhaps, Jayawickrama needs to be more patient with his trajectories and vary them only sparingly. But the fact that he does have the ability to loop the ball up and beat batsmen in the air cannot be denied. At the same time, it must be told that flatter and faster trajectories have their merits too as the English spinners’ success in India in 2012 will tell you.

Besides, being round-armish is not a crime per se. Spinners who bowl with a slightly round-arm action often do so to get more sidespin on the ball. Even Embuldeniya ostensibly gets more turn when he bowls round-arm as a variation. If you are still not convinced, you only need to look at Ravindra Jadeja who bowls similar to what Jayawickrama does. The Indian spinner’s round-arm action and flatter trajectory have not stopped him from averaging 24.84 with the ball in Tests.

For a long time since Muralitharan’s retirement, Sri Lanka have not had a spinner who could actually spin the ball, and this has been one of the major reasons for their struggle at home in Tests. Now, out of the blue, Sri Lanka have found two spinners who can spin the ball in Ramesh Mendis and Praveen Jayawickrama.

However, Sri Lanka have habitually made the mistake of backing aesthetically pleasing bowlers in the past, and their preference for Embuldeniya over Jayawickrama points in the same direction. With two big-spinning spinners, Sri Lanka now have got a monumental opportunity and they should not repeat their old habits and squander it. Praveen Jayawickrama should be Sri Lanka’s premier left-arm spinner.