Since Sri Lanka has lost a second successive match defending a total, it is easy to cauterize the bowlers for their inefficacy and roast the captain for his insipid leadership. 305 runs in 42 overs at 7.26 runs per over could be purveyed as a defendable total by all and sundry but, in my view, here is where Sri Lanka has lost most of its matches in the recent past.
Before we dwell on Sri Lanka’s performance with the bat, one fact that we need to acknowledge is that the shorter formats have become disproportionately in favor of batsmen so much so that it is the difference between the batting lineups that decides the outcome of a match. Teams can no more count on their bowling strength to win matches. The perfect example to underpin this argument would be how New Zealand fared during the last English summer.
After finishing the 2015 World Cup as runners-up, the Kiwis flew to England to face the team that was knocked out in the first round. In the first ODI, England amassed 408 runs followed by 365,302 and 350 in the second, third and fourth ODIs respectively. The fifth ODI was a rain-curtailed game which England won by scoring 192 runs. The English men did this against one of the most potent and incisive attacks in the world. Could we have expected our bowlers to do any better in this series?
England’s bowlers weren’t spared either. New Zealand, despite failing in the first ODI, piled on 398,306 and 349 in the second, third and fourth ODIs. A failure with the bat in the first and the last ODI gift wrapped those games and presented them to England.
Therefore, it would be grossly unfair on the bowlers to expect them to defend scores that are way below par on the flat and hard surfaces of England. So, it is the batsmen who must have set the tone of every match in the series. The shorter formats are such that it is the difference in batting strengths that will decide between the winner and the loser. The team that bats better wins.
It could be assumed that the Sri Lankan management was privy to this paradigm shift in world cricket when they roped in both Seekuge Prasanna and Farveez Maharoof into the ODI side. The logic behind their selection is simple. Even when the specialist bowlers are going to travel the distance, it will be advantageous to play all-rounders in lieu of the specialists for they are not going to do any worse. Their presence lengthens the batting lineup and if you look at the recently concluded WT20, it was the two teams with the longest batting lineups that locked horns in the finals.
Did we make use of our long batting order?
A team with a long batting lineup should chase so as to make complete use of their batting depth. But throughout this series, Sri Lanka batted first either by choice or by force. The major pitfall in batting first with a long batting lineup is that a team risks scoring runs that could be way below their potential.
Even though Mathews and Chandimal have concocted big partnerships, it is safe to say it was during their partnership the team lost the plot. In the first ODI, these two mustered 64 runs in 16.5 overs. In the second ODI, they accumulated 82 in 16.1 overs followed by 80 in 14.3 overs and 87 in 13.2 overs in the third and fourth ODIs respectively.
It is easy to laud them for the number of runs they have scored in partnership but the number of balls they have consumed should not be shirked. In the first match, they scored at the run rate of 3.8 wasting 37 balls in the process. Had it not been for Seekuge’s cameo, the final score would have been less flattering. But the leg-spinner is no more than a pinch-hitting slogger, and relying on him day in day out to provide such much-needed surge in the run rate is not only preposterous but also injudicious. If he clicks, then it can be a bonus and thus, he should never be a part of the plan. An archetypical excuse that could be thrown is that Sri Lanka lost early wickets and the pair needed to consolidate. However, it should be noted that the pair of Jos Butler and Chris Woakes, despite having lost six wickets for 82 runs, scored runs at the rate of 5.63 runs per over.
|S/R||Dot ball percentage|
Though the two struck at a better run rate in the second and third ODI, much of which was due to the fact that both these right-handers had a hamstring niggle, which debilitated their running ability, thus, forcing the batsmen to look for boundaries, in both of these matches, they consumed almost 15 overs for their partnership scoring at less than six runs per over.
In the fourth ODI, despite having a platform laid out by both Dhanushka Gunathilaka and Kusal Mendis, the pair was content in scoring around 6.5 runs per over. Even though the pair of Gunathilaka and Kusal Mendis scored at 7.04 runs per over, instead of throttling the run rate from that base, the captain and the vice-captain still counted on building yet another platform.
The partnership that hogged balls
Consuming deliveries to build a partnership is not off the beam, provided that the pair goes on to build on top of the platform laid. But in none of the matches barring the fourth ODI, either of these two batsmen capitalized on the number of balls they consumed. Fortunately, the fourth ODI was just a 42 over match, which allowed Mathews to stay until the end. However, had it been a 50 over match, most probably Mathews would have got out without finishing the innings off as he had done in the previous ODIs, or would have batted slowly in order to bat out the 50 overs.
Throughout this series, Sri Lanka’s lower order batsmen were only given 15 overs to up the ante. Dasun Shanaka hardly got an opportunity to take his time and had he been given that luxury, he may have had a devastating effect on the English bowlers. These two batsmen, truth be told, hogged another batsmen’s opportunity of scoring some quick runs.
In the modern era, if a batsman is going to swallow balls to get a start only to get out without building on it, then that is a cardinal sin. A batsman who gets out early can be forgiven for he will not be squandering another man’s resources.
It is obvious that Mathews and Chandimal are trying to do what Sangakkara and Mahela did during their time: getting a good start, then consolidating during the middle overs to have the lower order create a spike in the run rate during the death. That was a viable ploy in their era but in the contemporary period, as this series has shown, this will be futile.
A team should have the ability to score around 350 consistently in every innings and a failure to do that will make the team a spent force. Chandimal and Mathews have the ability to score faster, but it is obvious in the way they defend full tosses and push half-trackers from spinners for singles that this a ploy that the team has adopted. Unless they try to score quicker and allow a batsman like Dasun Shanaka to come in early so that he can have a sizeable effect, such humiliating defeats will continue.
In the face of knowing very well that the team would need well in excess of 300 to win, Chandimal and Mathews remorselessly played out dot balls. Were they hoping that the lower order batsmen can double down on their score during the last 15, especially when an extra fielder is allowed during the last 10? This clearly shows the lack of tactical nous in the Sri Lankan team.
What could be done?
As was the case in the fourth ODI, Mathews’s late hitting can help Sri Lanka finish its innings on a high. If the team is going to place a higher price on both Chandimal and Mathews, then they should never bat in successive positions. Mathews should drop down to six, which will not only allow a new number five to bat freely but it will also enable Mathews to finish innings as he had done in the past.
Tharanga’s run a ball innings may seem admirable when the top order fails, but his innings can become a bane when a score as high as 350 becomes only a par score on the modern day belters. It will be insane to include a player like Tharanga in the plan at number seven and the only way he can contribute is when the plans go astray, as the second and third ODI prove. However, even then he is not a batsman who can turn games on his own head. At the most, he would turn an embarrassing defeat into an acceptable defeat. Sri Lanka needs to play another hard hitting batsman in Tharanga’s place.
In the ODI series, Sri Lanka has not looked strong on paper, let alone on the field. The team obviously needs some time to get back on track, but if the team is going to rely on such over-cautious archaic strategies, then even when we perform well with the bat, wins might be a distance away. The fourth ODI is a testimony of it.