Former South African Pace great Allan Donald has labelled Mitchell Starc as the key to Australia’s hopes of toppling Sri Lanka when the Test series begins next week.
The tourists have concluded their two-day intra-team warm-up clash in Colombo with all players enjoying a competitive hit-out and some, such as Shaun Marsh, Steve Smith, Nathan Coulter-Nile and spearhead Starc, flourishing in hot and steamy conditions.
However, coach Darren Lehmann and wicketkeeper Peter Neville returned to the team hotel on day two because of illness.
Australia will have an official three-day warm-up clash, also in Colombo, against a Sri Lanka Board XI from Monday to fine-tune preparations, ahead of the series opener in Kandy on July 26.
Starc claimed 3-50 off 17 overs in his first match with a red ball since ankle surgery eight months ago. He had returned strongly in the recent one-day series in the Caribbean, but the opening Colombo match gave him an opportunity to work his way through extended spells.
Donald, Australia’s caretaker bowling coach, said Starc had the pace and bounce to torment Sri Lanka in the three-Test campaign.
“Starc’s the one, without a shadow of doubt,” Donald told the Cricket Australia website.
“He’s a 150 [km/h] bowler, he’s done it in the World Cup and in Twenty20 cricket. I’ve seen him destroy top orders, middle orders, lower orders doing that same thing from both sides [of the wicket].
“That’s where he is at, and that’s why he is the leading fast bowler in the world right now. He leads that from the front, he just needs to be backed up by the rest of the group so there’s a lot of hard work over the next couple of weeks.”
Coulter-Nile would appear unlikely to line up in the first Test but displayed good form in claiming 3-20 off 10 overs. He, too, had been ill soon after the team arrived.
“It’s always good to bowl against your teammates every now and then, just to get the competitive juices flowing. I have been crook for the first few days, it set me back a little bit so it was good to get out there and have a bowl,” he said.
While the spin of Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe will be crucial, the tourists understand the importance of reverse swing on the sub-continent. But Sri Lanka’s humidity threatens to take the edge of this vital weapon.
“It’s just so wet here, you just drip constantly, so trying to keep that ball dry is tough. Like I said, as soon as it goes in the outfield or someone who is sweaty gets their hands on it, it stops,” Coulter-Nile said.
“Hopefully, we can get it going and it will be a big weapon for us. I think it’s the same for all quicks – it’s hard toil.
“You just have to bowl nice straight lines. You don’t get a lot of movement in the air, so it’s really about the patient game and trying to outlast the batsmen.”
O’Keefe was the stand-out spinner, claiming 3-38 off 13 overs, while Lyon struggled, finishing with 0-122 off 26 overs combined over the two days.