When Sri Lanka visited Zimbabwe five years earlier for the initial Test series between the two countries, negative cricket by the tourists and Zimbabwe's inexperience in forcing victory resulted in three somewhat dreary draws. Since then, Zimbabwe had won their first Test matches and Sri Lanka, with spectacular success, had won the World Cup in 1995-96. But less happy recent events, rather than past triumphs, provided the background to this latest tour. Sri Lanka had endured a disastrous World Cup in 1999, though they were picking themselves up under a new captain, Sanath Jayasuriya, while Zimbabwe were still reeling from heavy defeats by Australia and South Africa in the last month.
Victory in the Second Test gave Sri Lanka the series 1-0. The only match of the three not seriously affected by the weather, it will be remembered for Nuwan Zoysa's first-over hat-trick in his only international match of the tour. Having missed the First Test through illness, he returned home after this one because of a groin strain. Less deserving of memory was the controversial run-out of Zimbabwe's Murray Goodwin later in the same match. Assuming the ball was dead, he left his crease and Tillekeratne Dilshan, playing in only his second Test, broke his wicket. This incident led to a serious deterioration in the relationship between the teams. Three Zimbabweans, Goodwin, Alistair Campbell and Neil Johnson, were fined and given suspended sentences for persistent sledging during the Third Test, the one match of the series in which the sides were evenly balanced almost throughout. Had the rain held off, it might have had a fascinating finish.
During the Tests, Zimbabwe still seemed to attract the ill-fortune that dogged them earlier in the season. They lost all three tosses, making it seven lost out of the last nine, and suffered more than their share of dubious umpiring decisions. By the one-day series, Lady Luck had relented a little. Zimbabwe won the toss in the first four matches although, ironically, their only victory came on the one occasion they lost it. Sri Lanka took the series 3-1, the opening match falling victim to rain.
Without Arjuna Ranatunga, not selected, and Aravinda de Silva, who withdrew from the tour for personal reasons, Sri Lanka's batting was young and inexperienced. The poor form of Jayasuriya was both a disappointment and a handicap. Yet, until the final one-day international, someone always rose to the occasion, and young players such as Russel Arnold and Dilshan showed great promise. Marvan Atapattu and Arnold carried their bats in the First and Third Tests respectively, the first time two players from the same country had done so in a series. The home side were over-reliant on their captain and wicket-keeper, Andy Flower, who hit a hundred and three fifties in the Tests and whose handling of Muttiah Muralitharan was particularly impressive. Grant Flower, struggling for form, had a different opening partner in each of the Tests but, going in together in the one-day series, he and Campbell only once failed to put on 50.
Both series were decided, in the main, by Sri Lanka's disciplined bowlers. Their seamers were invariably persistent, with Chaminda Vaas the pick, while Muralitharan's off-spin, though rarely returning outstanding figures, always presented the batsmen with problems. Zimbabwe's bowling was much more fragile. Heath Streak and Paul Strang missed the entire tour through injury, Neil Johnson was still unable to bowl, and Adam Huckle, who might have deputised for Strang as the leg-spinner, had unexpectedly retired. Henry Olonga and the left-arm seamer, Bryan Strang, recalled as a stock bowler, did a fine job with little incisive support, while the surprise return of Eddo Brandes, for his first Test since the England tour of 1996-97, boosted Zimbabwe's morale in the final match.
Andy Flower, having resumed the captaincy for the return match against South Africa, handled his team and his own game well, and Jayasuriya won acclaim for hisastute leadership. Even if spectators rarely saw his true form with the bat, he several times played a crucial role with the ball and in the field. And the standard of fielding, from both sides, was excellent.
Given that there was much fascinating cricket, public support was disappointing. No doubt this could be attributed to the poor showing of the home team and the perception that Sri Lanka were not such attractive opponents as Zimbabwe's recent visitors, Australia and South Africa. But it cannot have helped that Zimbabwe played host to such a glut of international cricket in a two-month period.
Match reports for
Zimbabwe Cricket Union President's XI v Sri Lankans at Bulawayo, Nov 7-9, 1999
Zimbabwe Cricket Academy v Sri Lankans at Kwekwe, Nov 12-13, 1999
5th ODI: Zimbabwe v Sri Lanka at Harare, Dec 19, 1999