Sri Lanka punched above their weight to win the recent Asia Cup, and this has got everyone excited, right from the apostates no more to cricket agnostics. Hopes are flying high following the unexpected win, and fans and pundits alike now seem to be indulging in grandiose delusions about winning the World Cup next month. How good was Sri Lanka’s performance in the Asia Cup and is it enough to win the World Cup down under? Let’s find out.
Having won just 2 of their 11 matches since the last World Cup, Sri Lanka’s run-up to the Asia Cup had been scratchy. Even though their bowling had been gathering steam, with the bat, however, they had been the second slowest-scoring team among the top-ranked sides.
In contrast, in the Asia Cup, there seemed to be a concerted effort to stay committed to attacking bowlers throughout the innings. Sri Lanka scored faster during the powerplay and were ballistic at the death, although they consistently lost course during the middle overs.
The powerplay performance
Making a significant difference in Sri Lanka’s performance in the Asia Cup was Kusal Mendis. Before the Asia Cup, Sri Lanka lumbered through the powerplay, failing to maximize the fielding restriction. In fact, the fastest a batsman had scored on average since the last World Cup was at 106.17. Kusal Mendis made amends this time by scoring at an impressive 157.7 while averaging 27.3 during the powerplay, allowing Sri Lanka to score at a decent 7.8 runs per over.
Particularly impressive was the way he took the attack to some of the best bowlers in the tournament like Rashid Khan, Shakib al Hasan, Ravichandran Ashwin, and Yuzvendra Chahal. Although looking to take down Rashid, Chahal, and Shakib is a high-risk option for a right-hander, this was necessitated by Pathum Nissanka’s snail-paced innings at the other end.
Nissanka once again struck at a below-par strike rate of 116.67 during the powerplay, a number that was significantly inflated by his innings against India, where he struck at 157.14, and barring which his strike would be a scanty 105.33. One only needs to look at the innings of Mohammed Rizwan in the final to gauge the damage such innings can do to a team.
With the ball, Sri Lanka were expensive during the powerplay giving away 8.8 runs per over. However, this number is aggravated by their egregious performance in the first match against Afghanistan, which saw them give away 83 runs during the powerplay, without which the run rate would read a respectable 7.8.
Dilshan Madushanka was Sri Lanka’s standout bowler during the powerplay going for only 7.27 runs an over. He swung the new ball while consistently clocking over 140kmph and complemented it by rushing batsmen by hitting the deck hard. Add to this his left-arm angle, it is needless to say that he was the find of the tournament.
Maheesh Theekshana, on the other hand, was comparatively expensive during the powerplay traveling at 8.7 runs per over, thanks to Rahmanullah Gurbaz who was severe on him and without whom his economy rate would have been an impressive 6.8.
Performance during the middle overs
During the middle overs, Sri Lanka lost an average of 4 wickets while scoring at a modest 7.33 runs per over mainly due to the poor performance of Charith Asalanka and Danushka Gunathilaka. Batting two left-handers one after the other was a big enough mistake itself, but Sri Lanka went a step ahead and played Gunathilaka, whose strike rate is a paltry 130 outside the powerplay in T20s, at number 4. Charith Asalanka, on the other hand, was undone by good bowling, negative matchups, and eventually a lack of confidence.
However, Bhanuka Rajapaksa and Kusal Mendis made sure Sri Lanka didn’t get bogged down during the middle overs despite failures from Sri Lanka’s number three and four. Rajapaksa struck at 142.7 averaging 39 while Kusal Mendis averaged 24.3 at a strike rate of 155.3.
With the ball, Sri Lanka went at an acceptable 7.63 runs per over while picking up an average of 3 wickets. Theekshana was particularly impressive, strangulating teams with an economy rate of 5.18. Dhananjayade Silva, in his two games against Pakistan, gave away only 4.75 runs per over. Wanindu Hasaranga, though was comparatively expensive going at 7.35 runs an over, managed to put the brakes on the opposition’s scoring by picking 8 wickets. However, his propensity to flight the ball meant that he gave away more than 9 runs per over against both Bangladesh and India while managing to pick up only two wickets.
Performance at the death
Even though Sri Lanka were lapped up by their opposition during the powerplay and the middle overs, it was at the death Sri Lanka were able to outperform them. Dasun Shanaka, who had a measly strike rate of 117 in the last World Cup, scored at a whopping 195.8 at the death, which allowed Sri Lanka to score at 11.3 runs per over. The captain was ably supported by Rajapaksa who scored at 163.
Chamika Karunaratne also made useful contributions striking at 139 at the death but he will have to improve on his strike rate to make a bigger impact. Nonetheless, his six against Naseem Shah in the final should allay any question about his place in the side as he manifested his power against an express bowler.
With the ball, Theekshana’s frugal economy rate of 5.75 and Madushanka’s decent rate of 8.6 managed to keep the opposition down to a run rate of 9.18 despite the other bowlers going for runs at the death.
Sri Lanka’s batting finally started clicking
Sri Lanka’s batting finally showed signs of coming of age and an intent appropriate for their times. Kusal Mendis offered some respite from Sri Lanka’s drudgery during the powerplay while Rajapaksa and Shanaka added the much-needed muscle during the middle overs and at the death.
However, Pathum Nissanka’s slow coach approach is a cause for worry. Sri Lanka can fix this by sending Gunathilaka up the order and bringing Dhananjaya de Silva into the middle order as a spin hitter. Gunathilaka’s average of 44.2 and strike rate of 146 during the powerplay puts to stark relief his best position in T20s. Moreover, opening with Gunathilaka also shields Kusal Mendis from slow left armers. The pair of Gunathilaka and Mendis was successful for Galle Gladiators in the last LPL and there is no reason why Sri Lanka should not try that.
Although Asalanka’s poor run of scores is a concern, given he is a left-handed spin hitter, Sri Lanka should persist with him as they cannot afford to have only one left-handed batsman during the middle overs, which would expose the middle order to slow left armers and wrist spinners.
Sri Lanka have also failed to maximize Hasaranga’s batting by sending him too late in the innings. As he showed against Pakistan in the final, Hasaranga is capable of scoring fast during the middle overs and can be floated up to shield the left-handed batsmen from off-spinners.
Sri Lanka’s bowling is stronger than ever
Dushmantha Chameera’s return will further bolster Sri Lanka’s bowling and make the attack complete. Madushanka’s exploits during the powerplay and at the death, along with Theekshana’s parsimony at the death also allow Sri Lanka to be more flexible in the way they use Chameera.
However, the absence of a slow left armer is a minor concern as it precludes the team from maximizing matchup potential. For instance, the strike rates of India’s top four in the Asia Cup against slow left armers in T20s were 105.6, 109.6, 115.8, and 101. Sri Lanka did not exploit this weakness of India even though they had Praveen Jayawickrama in the squad, a luxury that the World Cup squad doesn’t even have as it is left with no slow left armer.
Travails against pace
As evident against Pakistan and Sri Lanka’s recent tours to Australia, Sri Lankan batsmen struggle against both pace and bounce, both of which will be available in abundance in Australia. They will have to heavily depend on their bowling attack, which has three bowlers who can bowl over 140kmph, to restrict the opposition to a score that the Sri Lankan batsmen will find comfortable.
Sri Lanka are in group A in the qualifiers and unless they make the radically ingenious move of intentionally losing a match to end up second in the table, they are most likely to enter what could be termed as the group of death in the Super 12s. Sri Lanka will find themselves with Australia and England and, unfortunately, three of the teams Sri Lanka beat in the Asia Cup would be in the other group. Since only two teams can qualify from each group to the knockouts, the chances of Sri Lanka making it is slim.
But all is not lost for this team. The World Cup in 2024 will be played in the West Indies, where the conditions will suit their strengths and if they persist with the core that they now have and continue to build, they will be a force to reckon with.
What we must understand is that this team is still a work in progress and any unrealistic expectations on this team can easily give way to gratuitous hatred that can pave the way to a few heads rolling if Sri Lanka don’t do well at this year’s World Cup, which will invariably push Sri Lanka back to square one. The World Cup should not be seen as the center stage where the team is supposed to perform well. Sri Lanka are making good progress and the World Cup is a good chance to make even more progress.