By RICHARD LORD
The Australian cricket team is bruised, at least temporarily. Alongside its devastating recent series loss at home to South Africa after dominating the first two games, both drawn, the team has also permanently lost the services of one of the finest batsmen ever to walk to the crease in Ricky Ponting.
But Australia will still expect to comfortably win the three-match Test series against Sri Lanka, which starts at Hobart's Bellerive Oval on Friday as well as its five-match One-Day International and two-match Twenty20 series that follow. Because if Australia is bruised, then Sri Lanka is clinging to the ropes.
Ponting's replacement in the batting order is Phillip Hughes, who is playing well in domestic cricket for South Australia but has plenty to prove on the international stage. He was dropped a year ago with an average of 34.58 runs from 17 Tests after a poor run in which he found the hands of New Zealand slip-fielder Martin Guptill with metronomic regularity. There is, however, no replacement in the dressing room for Ponting, a mentor to young players and a fine example of professionalism.
But the hole he leaves behind is nothing compared with the chasm Sri Lanka will soon have to fill. The team knows precisely the pain of losing great players, with its greatest-ever player, the uber-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, retiring from Test cricket 2½ years ago.
Throughout its short Test history—it played its first in 1982—Sri Lanka has constantly punched above its weight, producing some of the greatest entertainers of the modern era along the way, as well as an unusual proportion of brilliant players with highly unorthodox techniques.
Some of the side's recent results haven't been too bad. In the past year, Sri Lanka has drawn 1-1 at home with then-world No. 1 England and beaten a quality Pakistan side 1-0, also at home, after losing 2-1 in South Africa.
But its precipitous fall in the rankings tells the long-term tale. Though Sri Lanka was a contender for the top spot at the time of Murali's retirement, it has since dropped to sixth, well below India in fifth and not far ahead of the West Indies in seventh.
Sri Lanka's latest series was a disappointing 1-1 home draw with lowly New Zealand. A core group of batsmen has been propping Sri Lanka up for a while now and, against New Zealand, they failed to fire, providing an unpleasant taste of what may be to come: Sri Lanka is going to lose every single member of that group of batsmen in the next couple of years.
Captain Mahela Jayawardene (age 35, 130 Tests, average 51.17) has said he would reassess his future after the Australia tour. It will not be long before he is joined by Kumar Sangakkara (age 35, 111 Tests, average 56.73); Thilan Samaraweera (age 36, 71 Tests, average 53.42); and Tillakaratne Dilshan (age 36, 81 Tests, average 41.21).
You can't gut a team like that and not feel the pain. Australia did when the likes of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden all retired within two years of each other. And aside from Australia's reverse against South Africa, the team has really only recovered properly over the past year.
India recently lost Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, and will soon lose Sachin Tendulkar and possibly Zaheer Khan, who has just been dropped after his form fell away. India, like Sri Lanka, has plummeted in the rankings, from first to fifth.
When those more than 30,000 Test runs' worth of batting do retire, the pressure on Sri Lanka's youngsters will be terrific. Angelo Mathews may find himself captain at the age of 25; Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne, both 23, with eight Test caps between them, will suddenly become senior batsmen.
And the team really will be forced to find some international-class seamers. Since the Test retirements of Chaminda Vaas and Lasith Malinga, that cupboard has been bare.
It has affected the side most away from home, and the seamers will likely struggle again in Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney.
The one area where Sri Lanka has managed to stay competitive is the one where it's suffered the greatest loss of all, spin bowling, thanks almost entirely to the canny and consistent Rangana Herath. Even he is 34, although spinners generally peak later and keep playing for much longer.
As with Ponting, an even bigger issue than the loss of batting talent will be the seniority vacuum caused by the retirements. Jayawardene and Sangakkara have both been fine captains, as well as two of the most impressive men in the game.
For an example of genuinely impassioned, brave, intelligent cricket oratory by a man with everything to lose from speaking his mind, watch Sangakkara's 2011 MCC Spirit of Cricket Lecture, in which he tears into the bureaucrats at the top of Sri Lankan cricket—his own employers—for their alleged corruption and ineptitude.
It is telling that he went unpunished for his words. Long run by a series of government-appointed interim committees, Sri Lanka Cricket put itself in a financial black hole after building new grounds at Pallekele and Hambantota and redeveloping the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo, and eventually had to hand over management of the grounds to the country's armed forces. The board also failed to pay its own players for more than a year.
Coach Graham Ford has recently said that he's trying to instill a culture of greater personal responsibility into the team, but that can't be easy when young players see the board failing to do the same. Ford, a fine coach who has coaxed decent results out of a declining squad, says he wants professionalism from the players—and professionals get paid.
A rich cricketing heritage has been mismanaged to the point of calamity.