A bleeding nose, a broken leg and tearing rain. These are Glenn McGrath’s vividest images of Sri Lanka. The bleeding nose was Steve Waugh’s. The broken leg was Jason Gillespie’s. Both crashed horrifically into each other when attempting a catch off Mahela Jayawardene in Kandy. Gillespie was out for the entire season. Waugh defied medical advice and resumed the series with a fractured nose-bridge. “Whenever someone asks me about Sri Lanka, those images come flooding back into my mind, blood dripping from Steve’s nose and Jason writhing in pain,” he says.
The tourists were duly thumped. Rain in Galle and Colombo drenched their comeback hopes. Sri Lanka remained an unconquered territory for McGrath and Waugh. But he returned home a bowler enriched about his craft. “It wasn’t an entirely different experience (in the subcontinent). Sri Lankan pitches are more or less like the ones in India and Pakistan. The rules are much the same – you have to optimise the new ball, and then wait for the ball to reverse. Yet, it wasn’t quite the same (like India and Pakistan). There was relatively more help in pitches, especially in the first session, when the ball does hem around a bit,” he recollects.
Proximity to the sea means it’s breezier than most other subcontinental venues, which are land-locked. The tropical climate ensures intermittent rain, which leaves some moisture on the surface as well. As was the case in India’s previous expedition to Sri Lanka. It did occasionally swing around at the P Sara Oval, and even more uniformly at the Sinhalese Sports Club. Though it’s spinners who usual revel in Sri Lanka, pacers too have enjoyed themselves.
Even in that ill-fated Kandy Test, it was Sri Lanka’s seamers, Chaminda Vaas and Nuwan Zoyza, who wrecked Australia before Muttiah Muralitharan’s customary lower-order clean-up. But McGrath and friends couldn’t purchase similar movement. “The difference was with the lengths. They bowled a lot fuller and cleverly changed the angles. However, if you keep on bowling full and not manage to swing the ball, they will cream you for boundaries. So you have to be aware of how the pitch is behaving at that particular point and be adaptive. Invariably, you have to mix it up a bit and think on the feet, and tweak your plans a little bit,” he points out.
Wiser, McGrath began bowling fuller. He snared Sanath Jayasuriya, in rampaging form after a double hundred in England, twice with the first ball of an innings. On both instances, he induced an edge to the slips. But the relish of the challenge “in that beautiful country” was blighted by the howling rain. He played just one more Test in Sri Lanka, against Pakistan, wherein he engineered a lower-order collapse to abort a certain Pakistan victory. “For a fast bowler, it’s a very challenging place to bowl, but if you have the requisite skill-set and are smart enough, you can be successful. Look how well (Mitchell) Starc bowled on Australia’s last visit there,” he observes.
Though Australia were clean-swept, Starc was fiendish, plucking 24 wickets at 15.16 and had put Australia in winning positions in every match, but if only their batsmen had deciphered the simple art of Rangana Herath and his off-spinning accomplice Dilruwan Perera. But McGrath feels it’s harsh to expect other pacers to replicate Starc. “He is in a different league among the current crop of pacers. He operates at great pace, has a lot of variations and is very aggressive, which is very important for any fast bowler, or any bowler for that matter. In the subcontinent, it’s always useful to have an out-and-out fast bowler, who can keep on bowling full at the stumps at top pace. Such bowlers take the pitch out of the equation. Dale Steyn was another,” he says.
Starc and Steyn inhabit a rarefied space. The closest to Starc that India possesses, without sounding blasphemous, is Umesh Yadav, who hits similar lengths, operates consistently at around 140-145 kmph, and is more disciplined than ever before. Since India’s previous series in Sri Lanka, he has turned a new page and is among the indispensables of the team. “I’m impressed by the way he has improved in the last few years. He has become more reliable and consistent. What I like most about him is his aggression. Hopefully, he will be used in short bursts, where he gives four-five high-intensity overs and a couple of wickets, like the way we used Brett Lee in the subcontinent,” he says.
Variety and depth
He is also impressed with the variety and depth in India’s bowling contingent. “Overall, India has a very good bowling unit, as it had been in the last few years. There’s also variety, someone like Bhuvneshwar (Kumar) who can be swing the ball both ways, (Mohammed) Shami is really proficient with reverse swing, and Ishant (Sharma) is vastly experienced. Then you have people like Varun Aaron and Jasprit Bumrah and youngsters like Basil Thampi coming up,” he says. And he winds up his assessment of India’s pace-bowling stock with an observation as candidly stinging as his well-weighted delivery. “When India tour overseas, it’s seldom been about the resourcefulness of their fast bowlers, but rather the adaptability of their batsmen.”