Why batting strategies are the reason behind Sri Lanka’s ODI woes

Dinesh Chandimal’s slow batting has become a bane for Sri Lanka

Despite winning an Asia Cup in 2014 and humbling England in an ODI series in 2014, truth be told, Sri Lanka has been one of the most underperforming teams in world cricket since 2013. Although Sri Lanka’s struggles in ODIs were unobtrusively glossed over thanks to stellar performances from the bowlers, and Sangakkara’s gobsmacking batsmanship, both of which helped Sri Lanka win erratically, the islanders were left exposed on the world stage during the 2015 World Cup, when it all mattered.

Sri Lanka has been top-heavy since the turn of this millennium with Marvan Atapattu, Sanath Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva scoring the bulk of the runs during the first half of the yester-decade followed by the likes of TM Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara, and Mahela Jayawardene. A weak middle-order at times left them exposed, but such was the efficiency of Sri Lanka’s top order, that it hardly mattered.

The conditions of the pitch during the last decade and the then subsisting ODI rules clubbed with a certain amount of balance that existed between bat and ball along with Sri Lanka’s strong bowling lineup that was underwired by the likes of Chaminda Vaas, Muttiah Muralitharan, Lasith Malinga, Nuwan Kulasekara and Ajantha Mendis made Sri Lanka’s strategy of having the top four bat out most of the overs a viable one.

Sri Lanka’s failure to adapt to new rule changes

But since the end of the World Cup in 2011, ICC had made several changes to the ODI rules at different time periods, inflicting an untenable effect on Sri Lanka’s batting strategies. With Murali and Vaas retiring, Malinga getting constantly injured, and Kulasekera losing his swing along with the incredible dearth of good spinners in ODIs, Sri Lanka’s bowling has become extremely supple. In the meantime, bats have become bigger, pitches have become extremely flatter and boundaries have become smaller.

These factors shifted the balance unfairly towards the batsmen making the lives of bowlers tough. Most teams realized the paradigm-shift and started focusing on strengthening their batting by playing a lot of hard hitting batsmen. But Sri Lanka, somehow, though, existed thinking their bowlers could keep the opposition down to a score that could be manageable to Sri Lanka’s batsmen.

Though the bowlers did reasonably well during 2014 to help Sri Lanka win several matches, against India and South Africa, when their bowlers were taken to the cleaners, the team was exposed. Sri Lankan batsmen struggled to go past 300 on Indian pitches of all pitches, yet the management believed that it was the fault of the bowlers that made wins elusive.

The then rules required teams to almost double their scores during the last 15 overs, but Sri Lanka’s top-heavy batting regularly found launching during the last 15 overs difficult despite setting a strong platform during the first 35 overs. Sri Lanka relied on the likes of Dimuth Karunaratne, Dinesh Chandimal, Jeevan Mendis and Upul Tharanga, however myopic, to provide them the late innings flourish.

The team was happy with a score between 250 and 300 hoping that the bowlers would be able to keep the oppositions down to a score less than that. However, on good pitches, against big bats and machismotic batsmen the bowlers failed.

Bowlers are not going to win you matches

The last time New Zealand toured England, their bowlers were ransacked by the English batsmen as the batting strength of each team became the factors that governed the outcome of the game. Barring the 5th ODI, at least either one of the team posted a score in excess of 300 in the first four ODIs. Even when the Kiwi bowlers struggle to cope up with the modern brutal batsmen, it will be unfair to expect the Lankan bowlers to incapacitate the oppositions so that the batsmen can have a cakewalk.

ODIs have got to a point where Sri Lanka can no more expect bowlers to win them matches. If Sri Lanka is to raise its head as one of the major forces in the shorter formats, they need to make some significant changes to their batting strategies, which to the chagrin of the fans seem to be very obsolete.

Sri Lanka’s poor batting strategies

Sri Lankan bowlers made sure that batsmen were not exposed.

Since the 1st of October, 2013, Sri Lankan batsmen have struck at the rate of 86.87 per 100 balls. Only Pakistan, the West Indies, and Bangladesh have done worse. The islanders’ average runs per over of 5.51 is the third worst among all test playing nations barring Zimbabwe. Sri Lanka has scored in excess of 300 12 times whereas Australia, India, South Africa, England and New Zealand have done it 21, 17, 17, 15 and 13 times respectively. And only once has Sri Lanka successfully chased down a score above 300 in comparison to Australia’s 5 and India’s 3.

The above numbers clearly elucidate the fact that Sri Lanka’s batting is way below the international standard, but thanks to their bowling they were never exposed much- a luxury which they no more have.

ODIs have got to a point where Sri Lanka can no more expect bowlers to win them matches. If Sri Lanka is to raise its head as one of the major forces in the shorter formats, they need to make some significant changes to their batting strategies, which to the chagrin of the fans seem to be very obsolete.

Examining the first two ODIs, it could be observed that Sri Lanka has been snail-paced during the middle overs. Again it is a reflection of Sri Lanka’s archaic ploy of trying to bat out most of the overs free of any risks before trying to launch at the death.

With five fielders being allowed outside the ring during the last 10 overs, trying to up the ante during the last ten is less likely to be fruitful. The first ten overs can have only two fielders outside the ring, hence making maximum use of the first powerplay becomes paramount. With four fielders being outside the circle during the second powerplay, teams need more power during the middle overs than they needed ever before.

The quagmire during the middle overs

Though the openers shifted the momentum towards Sri Lanka in the first two ODIs, wickets towards the end of the first powerplay slowed down the proceedings, or so it could be assumed. After Sri Lanka had rushed to 56 off just 52 balls, the Chandimal-Mathews partnership consumed 16.5 overs to score 64 runs at the meagre rate of 3.8 runs per over. Though the archetypical pretext would be the loss of three wickets, it should be noted that Jos Butler and Chris Woakes added 138 to the total at the rate of 5.63 runs per over after losing six wickets for 82 runs.

In the second ODI, though the Mathews-Chandimal partnership scored at 5.07 runs per over- which was the result of Mathews’s ailing hamstring forcing him to rely on boundaries for runs- but Chandimal’s 52 off 86 balls sapped all the momentum. In the face of spin being considered as Sri Lanka’s favorite cannon fodder, Adil Rashid, Moeen Ali and even Joe Root were allowed to sneak in with their parsimonious overs. The Sri Lankan middle order hardly showed any urgency.

It could be argued that should one of Sri Lanka’s top three go on to convert their starts into a big score, the Sri Lankan middle order would be a little more adventurous. But as it was proven during the 2nd ODI against Ireland, it would take a pinch hitter to capitalize on such a platform. It is not sensible to rely on a pinch hitter to provide such impetus during the middle overs all the time. Discounting any occasional brilliance from a pinch hitter, the current middle order cannot manage more than run a ball even on such platforms.

England’s 7th wicket partnership proved that a team doesn’t need to take too many risks to score around six runs an over. Even after losing early wickets, an occasional boundary interspersed by aggressive running between the wickets could have helped Sri Lanka to do better than what they did during the middle overs. However, the Lankan batsmen were happy to play out dot balls while attempting to atone for them by hitting a boundary. In the first ODI, Sri Lanka played out 140 dot balls as opposed to England’s 128 dot balls (that too after losing their first six wickets for just 82 runs), while in the second ODI, the Lankans played 148 dot balls compared to England’s 76 dot balls.

Shanaka’s run-out in the first ODI and Chandimal’s run-out in the second ODI could also be ascribed to Sri Lankan batsmen’s reluctance to keep the scoreboard ticking since both batsmen were sent back by their respective partners when they attempted a risky yet plausible single.

What should be done?

Tharanga’s place at number seven is also questionable since it is well known that the left-hander is incapable of finishing off innings. Though he scored 53 off 49 balls, that kind of an effort could hardly be adequate should Sri Lanka’s top six batsmen do well. Tharanga’s innings was great given the circumstances, but how sane is to play a batsman at number seven for the worst case scenario? As Tharanga showed in the last match, he can turn a mediocre score into a respectable one, but the raging question is whether that would be adequate to win Sri Lanka matches. The answer as the last match proved is a big no.

In the case of Sri Lanka’s top six batsmen scoring extremely well, Tharanga’s position at seven will become pointless since the finisher then would be expected to do better than just scoring 53 off 49 balls. Hence, Dasun Shanaka should be brought back so that Sri Lanka can capitalize on the start the top order is expected to provide.

Dhanajaya de Silva deserves a spot at number five. Mathews is the best finisher Sri Lanka has got and his inability to rotate strike makes him a liability at number five. Add to that de Silva’s ability with the ball, Sri Lanka will have three all-rounders who could make up for Mathews’s 10 overs. After all, when specialist bowlers are travelling at around 8 runs per over, it would not be a bad idea to have a batting all-rounder do the same since he can always contribute with the bat. Maharoof and Prasanna at 8 and 9 will elongate Lanka’s batting lineup and this will help the top order take a substantial amount of risk with the bat.

Sri Lanka must understand that a flying start followed by digging in during the middle-overs in the hope of flourishing towards the death is no more a sensible strategy. The modern game requires teams to score consistently throughout the fifty overs. Come what may, the island team should try to dominate the bowling since trying to bat out the fifty overs in case of a stutter at the top is going to lead to a defeat anyway. Will Sri Lanka look to be more rambunctious in the coming matches?