Sri Lanka have a spin-bowling problem and we need to talk about it


Sri Lanka’s expected, recent defeat at the hands of England was their fifth straight loss to them at home. Quite predictably, it was the batsmen who were put in dock as the pundits and the fandom impetuously pinned the blame solely on the first innings performance that saw the home team trundle their way to 135 all out.

Sri Lanka gave away 421 runs in the second innings of the match on a pitch that offered a lot of assistance to the spinners, and that has, somehow, managed to evade scrutiny. Yes, Sri Lanka have a spin-bowling problem and we need to talk about it.

It is easy to chalk this lackadaisical performance of the spinners up to the absence of Rangana Herath. After all, we have convinced ourselves that the hole left by Herath is as huge as some of them left by others in the past. In fact, you can even assume that the team is in a mini transition of sorts in the middle of a bigger transition that has been going on forever.

However, all that you need to remember is that the last time Herath played in Sri Lanka, he managed to pick up only three wickets across both innings at Galle, of all venues, against the same side.

Sri Lankan spinners’ struggle with the ball is not anything new. In fact, it has been consistent. And it has quite a long history.

To put things into a better perspective, let’s analyze Sri Lanka’s performance in Tests at home across two time periods. If you look at Sri Lanka’s recent Test history, one can argue that there have been two pivotal moments. One is, of course, an obvious one–the retirement of Murali. The other is the period between 2013 and 2015 during which the stalwarts who formed the spine of the Sri Lankan batting retired one by one.

So, the first time period will be the ten years that preceded Murali’s retirement from Tests. Let’s call it epoch I. The second time period will be the decade that follows his retirement. We shall call it epoch II.

We can divide epoch II into two halves since, during the first half of this epoch, Sri Lanka had the luxury of having Sangakkara and Jayawardane in the XI in addition to Dilshan and Samaraweera. However, the retirements of all these batsmen within two years meant that during the second half, Sri Lanka’s batting was rendered barren.

The spree of retirements would begin in 2013 with Samaraweera’s and end in 2015 with Sangakkara’s. So, let’s take the retirement that fell right in between—the retirement of Mahela Jayawardane in 2014—and split epoch II into epoch II a and epoch II b. Thus, we are left with epoch I, and epoch II consisting of epoch II a and epoch II b.

Time Period Beginning End 
Epoch I 23 July 2000 23 July 2010 
Epoch II 23 July 2010 18 January 2021 
Epoch II a 23 July 2010 18 Aug 2014 
Epoch II b 18 Aug 2014 18 Aug 2014 

To begin with, Sri Lanka’s performance in Tests has taken a beating since Murali’s retirement. The island nation’s win-loss ratio during the ten years before Murali’s retirement was a whopping 3.44. This nosedived to 1.06 following his retirement. Compared to the impact left by Murali’s retirement, the effect of the retirement of the batsmen seems to have been minimal as the win-loss ratio of 1 during epoch II b is only slightly less than the ratio of 1.2 during epoch II a.  

Sri Lanka’s win-loss ratio at home.

Consequently, batting doesn’t seem to have impacted Sri Lanka’s performance so much as their bowling for Sri Lanka’s win-loss ratio had been just as worse even while Sangakkara and Mahela were around.   

If batting hadn’t had an impact, what was that which resulted in such a massive drop in performance? If we compare the players’ performance during epoch I and epoch II a, it can be seen that the average of the Sri Lankan batsmen had fallen from 40.69 to 35.91. In the meantime, the batting average of the oppositions had risen from 23.97 to 33.93.   

This is such an outlandish observation since, despite the presence of Sri Lanka’s elite batsmen, Sri Lanka’s batting average had gone south. However, a more bowler-friendly pitch cannot be offhandedly cited as the reason as the oppositions had managed to improve their average remarkably.   

And it is the pace that had tormented Sri Lanka during epoch II a. Spinners’ average against Sri Lanka had remained fairly constant as they had averaged 44.07 during epoch I and 45.42 during epoch II a. In contrast, fast bowlers had averaged 40.53 against Sri Lanka during epoch I and 32.11 during epoch II a.   

Fast bowlers’ average in Sri Lanka.

Could it be that the pitches became favorable for fast bowlers during epoch II a which made batting comparatively difficult for Sri Lanka? Well, the answer to this question is not easy. Sri Lankan pacers’ average had gone up during this period from 27.99 to 52.81 but that must have been more due to poor bowling than an unhelpful pitch. But, still, the percentage of overs bowled by fast bowlers, if at all, only saw a slight dip for both the home team and the oppositions so it is difficult to argue that the pitches started favoring pace.   

One way of explaining the better performance of the opposition batsmen is to credit the retirement of Muralitharan and Vaas instead of the pitch. This bolsters the thesis that the pitch became tougher for batting which would explain the batting slump of the islanders. But why did pace do better than spin against the local batsmen is an interesting question. But that’s a topic for another article.  

What this shows is that fast bowlers were more culpable for Sri Lanka’s struggle at home during epoch II a than anyone else. It doesn’t mean that the spinners had done well. In fact, their average had increased from 23.82 to 28.2 but, still, that’s not as worse as an average that skyrocketed to 52.81.  

So, it must be all the fast bowlers’ fault, right? Not quite so. Since Mahela’s retirement, the Sri Lankan fast bowlers’ average has come down to 35.52 from 52.81. Meanwhile, the spinners’ average has gone up from 28.2 to 29.34.   

Spinners’ average in Sri Lanka.

The pitches cannot be said to have helped the Sri Lankan fast bowlers since they were poor during epoch II a even while the opposition bowlers had a ball. And when you average a mammoth 52.81, improvement in performance alone can help you bring down your average.   

Besides, the opposition pacers’ average has fallen only slightly—from 32.11 to 30.77. Given the superior pace bowling skills of the visitors and the Sri Lankan batsmen’s innate ineptness against pace, if the pitch had actually been fast-bowler-friendly, you would have seen a sharp drop in the average of the opposition fast bowlers commensurate with the drop in the average of the local fast bowlers.   

If the pitches haven’t become fast bowler-friendly, have they become flat and conducive for batting insofar as making life difficult for spinners? Well, the average of the Sri Lankan batsmen has fallen from 35.91 to 27.65. Of course, you could argue that the batting has been dreadful from the local batsmen but it should be noted that the oppositions’ batting average has also plummeted from 33.93 to 29.74.  

However, this doesn’t completely refute the argument that the local batsmen have been poor and pitches could have become flat since, as discussed earlier, the dip in the opposition batsmen’s average can be ascribed to the local fast bowler’s performance that has seen a huge improvement since Mahela bid adieu.   

Nonetheless, the average of the opposition spinners’ fell from 45.42 to 28.05. This is so remarkable that this has not only reduced the gap of 17.22 between the Sri Lankan spinners’ average and the opposition spinners’ average that existed at the end of epoch II a, it has also increased the gap by 1.29 in favor of the oppositions. In other words, the local spinners have been out bowled by visiting spinners during epoch II b.  

Again, you could argue that the Sri Lankan batsmen have been so poor that the opposition spinners could show so much improvement during epoch II b. Nevertheless, the opposition pacers have improved their average only by 1.34 from 32.11 to 30.77 and it would be a stretch to argue that the Sri Lankan batsmen have been a lot poorer against spin than they have been against pace.  

All this point only in one direction, that is, the pitches have become disproportionately conducive for spin bowling since Mahela’s retirement.   

This is not to mean that the batsmen haven’t played poorly. The point is that the pitches have become tougher to bat on and this has been the major reason for the decline in the average of the Sri Lankan batsmen during epoch II b.   

Percentage of overs bowled by visitors in Sri Lanka.

Further strengthening this line of argument is the fact that the percentage of overs bowled by the spinners during epoch II b has seen an astonishing surge for both the home team and the visitors. Before Murali’s retirement, 60.62% of the overs were bowled by spinners for Sri Lanka and 44.42% for oppositions. This has increased to 70.35% for Sri Lanka and 61.33% for the visiting teams. Unless the pitches offer disproportionately high assistance to the spinners, there is no way you can see such a dramatic increase in the percentage of overs bowled by spinners.  

Percentage of overs bowled by Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka

This increase in the overs bowled by spinners also explains why opposition batsmen’s average has fallen from epoch II a to epoch II b. Though Sri Lankan fast bowler’s marked improvement has had a hand, facing more overs from the spinners who have averaged 29.34 in epoch II b has meant that the visiting batsmen’s average had to take a dip.  

Thus, in conclusion, there is evidence to argue that the pitches have become extremely spin friendly in Sri Lanka since around Mahela’s retirement and despite this fact, the Sri Lankan spinners have averaged 29.34 with the ball which is bettered by opposition spinners’ average of 28.05.   

To get an idea about how bad this decline compares to that with the bat, just look at this: the difference in average between the home and visiting spinners before Murali’s retirement was 20.25. This has been completely upended during epoch II b as the difference has become –1.29. Sri Lankan spinners’ fall has been by 21.54.   

On the other hand, the difference between Sri Lankan batsmen’s and opposition batsmen’s average was 16.72 before Murali’s retirement. It has come down to –2.09 during epoch II b. And the difference between these differences is 18.81.  

The difference between the averages of Sri Lanka and visitors.

As it can be seen, spinners have performed worse than batsmen since Mahela’s retirement and this has been a major contributor to Sri Lanka’s poor performance at home. And not to forget, this has been in spite of the pitches offering a lot more assistance to them than it has ever been the case.  

As Sri Lanka search for answers for their travails at home, the poor performance of the spinners seems to have been lost on many. For a long time, Sri Lanka have treated their spinners with kid gloves and the mainstream narratives have completely overlooked the uninspiring performance of the spinners.   

While it is true that the batting needs to come together, spin has been Sri Lanka’s biggest issue. And it is high time Sri Lanka take cognizant of this fact and initiate remedial measures.