Team review January 6, 2012

Barren, then Durban

Hilal Suhaib
Sri Lanka had a mostly forgettable year on the field and off it, save for a glimmer at the end

A busy year for Sri Lanka ended with consecutive series defeats, devastating resignations, a drug ban, and financial ruin for the governing body of cricket. However, a historic Test victory in South Africa - their first win in 16 Test matches - brought an indelible end to a topsy-turvy 2011.

The complaint in 2010 was that the FTP did not allocate enough Test matches to the side, but in 2011, Sri Lanka were blessed with 11 - they won one and lost four. By the end of the year, Tillakaratne Dilshan's men had lost three consecutive Test series.

Angelo Mathews' maiden Test century, a blistering 193 by Dilshan against England (the highest score by a Sri Lankan at Lord's), and Kumar Sangakkara's first Test centuries in England and South Africa, together with hundreds from Prasanna Jayawardene, Mahela Jayawardene and Thilan Samaraweera provided some resistance. But on seven occasions in the five-day game, Sri Lanka were bowled out for less than 200 runs.

In Muttiah Muralitharan's absence Rangana Herath, who was the third-highest Test wicket-taker in 2011, and Chanaka Welegedara shouldered much of the load for Sri Lanka. Since Murali's retirement, however, Sri Lanka have struggled to bowl out their opposition.

Their inability to win more than one Test in 2011 saw them plummet down the rankings to end the year in sixth place. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. They were not considered a threat to the hosts on their tour of South Africa, but after being crushed in the first Test by an innings and 81 runs, Sri Lanka regrouped in Durban to level the series, resulting in Test cricket's biggest upset of the year.

In ODIs too, Sri Lanka's fans were unable to find solace in their team's performances. Since losing the World Cup final to India in April, they suffered successive series defeats against England, Australia and Pakistan. Adding to their woes, shortly after the World Cup, it was revealed that opening batsman Upul Tharanga, who averaged 56.42 in the World Cup, had negligently consumed a banned substance, becoming the first Sri Lankan cricketer to be handed a drug suspension.

The World Cup final was the last time Sangakkara captained Sri Lanka. With him also went vice-captain Mahela Jayawardene and chairman of selectors Aravinda de Silva. If these resignations were not catastrophic enough, Sri Lanka also prematurely lost Lasith Malinga in Test cricket.

Off the field, the situation was bleaker. Inept government-appointed administrators, unable to work within their budget during the World Cup, left the board destitute. As a result, players remained unpaid for ten months. Staff and clubs too were left without wages and fees, and the domestic first-class tournament was postponed. The ICC, which appears to no longer have faith in Sri Lanka's board, recently paid the World Cup fees directly to the players, instead of remitting the funds to the board as is normally done.

In T20s Sri Lanka managed to remain competitive, winning three of the four matches they played in 2011. Dilshan's 55-ball century against Australia in Pallekele was the highlight of the year.

High point
Murali's final match on Sri Lankan soil came in the form of a World Cup semi-final that Sri Lanka won, and fittingly Murali took a wicket off his last ball. Later that evening, with a grandiose fireworks display to celebrate the moment, he strode around the Premadasa for a lap of honour, flanked by his emotional team-mates and a packed stadium cheering him on.

However, the moment all of Sri Lanka will cherish most is their victory against a bullish South African side in Durban. On a wicket that was expected to trouble them, with their miserable record outside the subcontinent haunting them, Sri Lanka outplayed South Africa to record their first Test win in the country. It was only their ninth Test win outside the subcontinent. Most rewardingly, it came in the wake of former South Africa captain Kepler Wessels' comment to the media that South Africa A could beat Sri Lanka.

Low point
On their tour of England, after scoring 400 in their first innings and bowling England out for 496, Sri Lanka managed to lose the first Test, after it looked to be heading towards a dull, rain-affected draw. Thanks to an astounding collapse, they were bowled out for 82 runs in 24.4 overs. Those 117 minutes in their second innings in Cardiff cost them the match and the series.

New kid on the block
An unbeaten attacking ODI century at Lord's and an impressive Test debut from the 22-year-old Dinesh Chandimal brought the smiles back to the faces of Sri Lanka's fans. His arrival is reassuring to those who felt the team could no longer produce aggressive, unorthodox batsmen to continue playing the brand of cricket Sri Lanka are known for. With more exposure, expect to see more dashing strokeplay from this exciting talent.

Fading star
By mid-2011, Thilan Samaraweera, who averaged 114.25 in Test cricket in 2010, had fallen out of favour with the selectors. The 35-year-old was dropped for the Test series against Pakistan and initially overlooked for the tour of South Africa. Chief selector Duleep Mendis made it known earlier in the year that Sri Lanka were looking to groom youngsters and Samaraweera would only be considered "on a short-term basis". With his every innings under scrutiny, his century in Durban was timely.

What 2012 holds
Sri Lanka aren't scheduled to play as many Tests in 2012 as in 2011 but a busy year awaits nonetheless. They travel to Australia for a triangular ODI series featuring the hosts and India. They then host England at home for a two-match Test series. They will also play the Asia Cup and host the ICC World Twenty20.

There are murmurs in Sri Lanka that Sangakkara and Jayawardene will be approached to take the captaincy, in the hope that one of them will accept once more. But much of what Sangakkara spoke about in his highly acclaimed Cowdrey lecture, which the late Peter Roebuck hailed as "the most important speech in cricket history", remains unchanged. However, perhaps with Jayawardene - one of Sri Lanka's most successful captains - at the helm once again and new administrators in charge, as a result of the first election in seven years, Sri Lanka could turn things around in 2012.

Hilal Suhaib is the founder and editor of Island Cricket