The Liebke Report Card, Sri Lanka vs Australia first Test: Superhuman skipper, stoic Smudge

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After going back and forth in the ODI and T20 series, Sri Lanka and Australia finally turned their collective gaze toward the Tests. Here’s the first report card of the series.

Choosing Your Lane
Grade: C

Sri Lanka won the toss and batted first. After just five overs, Pat Cummins decided he’d had enough and brought Nathan Lyon on to bowl. Lyon immediately ripped one off the surface of the pitch, extracting wild bounce and turn as the ball beat the bat and hit Alex Carey in the head. (A concussion substitute opportunity for Glenn Maxwell to slot in behind the stumps? Alas, no.)

Sri Lanka were 0-18 at that point, but based on the spin extracted from that first ball from Lyon and Australia having to bat last, you’d be forgiven for thinking they already had enough runs for an innings victory.

Instead, they batted on, losing a couple of early wickets to the seamers before Lyon had Dimuth Karunaratne smartly caught by a diving David Warner while everybody else was busily appealing for an LBW. 

Should umpires only make their decisions based on the original appeal rather than everything the fielding team eventually gets around to screaming at them? I say yes. Enough wishy-washiness. You can’t be simultaneously appealing for LBW and caught at slip – choose your lane and stick to it.

The Unluckiness of Steve Smith
Grade: D

Lyon and fellow spinner Mitchell Swepson continued to take wickets until Niroshan Dickwella strode to the crease and counter-attacked, eventually bringing up a run-a-ball half-century as he helped Sri Lanka recover to 212 all out. 

In reply, Australia set off in similarly helter-skelter fashion, with Warner smashing fours off his first two balls. 

But Warner and Marnus Labuschagne soon both fell, to spin and reverse-sweeps to the lone fielder, respectively. Their dismissals brought Steve Smith to the crease alongside Usman Khawaja.

GALLE, SRI LANKA - JUNE 29: Steven Smith of Australia reacts after being runout by Niroshan Dickwella of Sri Lanka during day one of the First Test in the series between Sri Lanka and Australia at Galle International Stadium on June 29, 2022 in Galle, Sri Lanka. (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

Steve Smith reacts after being run out. (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

And I mean ‘alongside’ quite literally as the pair soon found themselves in the middle of the pitch together, contemplating a scurried leg bye, before Khawaja changed his mind, shrugged and sent Steve Smith scrambling back to his end to be run out for just 6. The stoic Smith took things in his stride. These things happen. No big deal. 

Still, a desperately unlucky dismissal for Smith, who could hardly believe that Dickwella stopped appealing for the LBW long enough to gather the ball.

At the end of the first day’s play, Australia were 3-98 in reply, with the match evenly poised. Honours mostly even, but perhaps with a slight advantage to Sri Lanka, based on the fact that they are a nation with the time zone sense to know that 10pm is a perfect time to end a day of Test cricket.

Usman Khawaja’s Rights
Grade: A

The start of the second day was delayed, thanks to rain, cricket stands collapsing, Channel 7 taking Cricket Australia to court, insufficient concussions to allow Maxwell to substitute into the Test as a like-for-like replacement and a variety of other natural disasters.

Once play got going, Travis Head was dismissed cheaply, of course. But Khawaja kept going, eventually reaching 71 before being dismissed.

Since Khawaja’s Test recall earlier in the year, he has scored 822 runs at an average of 117.42. A man who has earned the right to run Steve Smith out.

Cameron Green joined Khawaja at the crease and looked surprisingly comfortable against Sri Lanka’s spin attack. Commentators toyed with the notion that Green may have simply been too tall for Sri Lanka’s spinners to get the ball above his eyeline. A wild and delightful theory.

But if true, it suggests that, despite the purported cleanskin new broom of Pat Cummins and coach Andrew McDonald, the #UglyAussies were in fact stooping to their usual dirty tricks. Particularly ironic in this instance, since if Green were to physically stoop, it would negate his unfair advantage over the Sri Lankan spinners.

Related: who has brooms with skin on them? Clean or otherwise? Gross.

Pat Cummins’ Superhuman Vision
Grade: B

Eventually Green, too, was dismissed, but not before he and Carey had given Australia a first innings lead. His wicket brought the Australian captain to the crease. 

In the recently concluded IPL, Cummins had hit a 14-ball 50, and seemed to be of a mind that this was exactly the kind of thing he should do more often. Alas, Cummins had to settle instead for a shameful 16-ball 26* after he hit a six out of the ground and the umpires decided it was too dark to continue play. Presumably for the safety of passing pedestrians. 

Still, imagine how far he’d have hit it with decent light.

Burgeoning Rifts
Grade: D

Quick wickets on the third day saw Australia all out for 312, a lead of 109. Mitchell Starc got Sri Lanka off to a flyer in their second innings, before the spinners stepped in to put an end to that.

A sweep shot that ricocheted off Marnus Labuschagne’s helmeted noggin and almost gave Lyon a caught and bowled inspired a Cummins masterstroke. 

“Could a head possibly take a wicket?” thought the Australian skipper. “Or, indeed, a Head?”

Travis Head of Australia celebrates.

Travis Head of Australia celebrates with teammates after dismissing Dinesh Chandimal of Sri Lanka. (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

It turned out that Head could take four wickets, turning the ball sharply and ripping through the tail.

Ultimately, Cummins didn’t even get a chance to bowl, leaving him stranded on 198 Test wickets. Pretty disappointing leadership from Pat Cummins not to give his seamer Pat Cummins even a chance to bring up his 200th Test wicket.

Still, surely he’d make it up to him by asking him to open the batting and hit the first ball out of the ground for victory.

But no. That role was retained by Warner. Let’s just hope that this burgeoning rift between the Australian captain and his number one fast bowler doesn’t grow into something more worrisome.

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