Andrew Fidel Fernando in Durban
There’s an opening spot up for grabs, the No. 3 position doesn’t have a permanent occupant, No. 5 is dodgy, as is No. 7, but the longest ongoing search by far, for Sri Lanka, has been for a successor to Rangana Herath as the go-to spinner, home and away.
First, if there are that many vacancies in your XI, it is clear there are serious problems. If you were out to rent an apartment and found out half the units in the building were unoccupied, you would assume that either the plumbing is dodgy, or the wiring is bad, or that the landlord runs screaming up and down the stairwell naked every night. (The last, actually, is a decent approximation of Sri Lanka Cricket officials’ behaviour towards the team.)
But on the spin bowling front – the one area in which Sri Lanka should absolutely have a production line of capable operators – several contenders have been trialled, but each one has fallen alarmingly away. The big-spinning offie Tharindu Kaushal had his doosra banned in 2015, and has since been a shell of his former self, even in domestic cricket. Left-arm spinner Malinda Pushpakumara, who only needs to sneeze for first-class top order to wet themselves en masse, has been modest at Test level so far, as well as diabolical in the field. Left-arm wristspinner Lakshan Sandakan has occasionally impressed, but can’t be relied on to keep runs in check. And Dilruwan Perera, on whom many hopes rested, was both ineffective and expensive on the recent tour of Australia, for which he was brusquely dumped.
Enter Lasith Embuldeniya. Tall, athletic and young, at 22, he seems like a reaction to Herath in the way that the understated, undemonstrative Herath was to the rambunctious and excitable Muttiah Muralitharan. What he has in common with Herath, though, is an ambling approach to the crease, and a gentle release, in addition of course to being slow left-arm. You can yell all you want about not comparing young bowlers to legends so early in their careers. You can complain it sets up unfair expectations, and that they must be allowed to be their own selves. But look, Sri Lanka need a long-term, match-winning spinner. But if Sri Lanka want to be a force in Test cricket, at some point, some spin bowler is going to have to deliver the number of wickets per game that Herath produced. Or at least, they are going to have to get close.
Going by Kingsmead’s evidence, early signs for Embuldeniya are good. Maybe even excellent. With his high-arm release, he clearly revelled in the bounce the surface offered him – the kind of bounce he doesn’t often see at home. To accentuate that natural bounce, Embuldeniya introduced more and more overspin into his deliveries, as the match wore on, which in addition to making his deliveries leap off the pitch, also had them dipping, sometimes dramatically. Dean Elgar found this out in the second evening, when he ran at Embuldeniya, expecting to turn a full delivery into a full toss, only for the ball to plunge on him, and his shot to travel at waist-height to Embuldeniya, who took a sharp return catch. Temba Bavuma was another victim of the dip – the ball diving beneath his sweep, and striking him in front of the stumps.
On day three, Embuldeniya showed that although his action is as mellow as they come, he is capable of putting a surprising amount of work on the ball, and gaining significant turn. Left-hander Quinton de Kock was beaten by sidespin, and was struck dead in front of the stumps. Kagiso Rabada was also caught bat-pad, after failing to account for the turn.
Also, Vernon Philander was bowled by one hat kept very low, but since this is a new spinner, and because even slow left-armers deserve to have a little bit of mystery ascribed to them, let us pretend this was a totally intentional and beautifully executed sucker ball, rather than merely the work of a wearing pitch.
So in essence, through the course of his 5 for 66, Embuldeniya has beaten batsman in all the ways a finger spinner is expected to beat them, apart from maybe with a slider. And even if it didn’t yield him a wicket today, it’s not like he doesn’t have one that skids straight on.
Does he have what it takes to kick on from here, having become only the third Sri Lanka spinner to take a five-wicket haul away from home (after Upul Chandana, and Akila Dananjaya, who by the way might be another of those spinners who might have fallen by the wayside, depending on whether he can get his offbreak cleared by the ICC)? Well, no one who watched Embuldeniya face down the incredibly hostile fast bowling South Africa threw at him on the second afternoon could argue that he is not tenacious. But there are bigger tests coming, than even spending 63 balls at the crease against the likes of Kagiso Rabada and Dale Steyn on their home turf. In the coming months, Embuldeniya will have to fight his way past a Sri Lanka system that more often ruins young talents than develops them.
At Kingsmead, he’s tried his best to fill another of those empty apartments. But will he be able to stand the landlord?