Why are Sri Lanka struggling in the shorter formats? Because their performance has declined over the years. When did Sri Lanka’s decline start? It was after the retirement of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena. This is the popular theory.
So, why haven’t Sri Lanka been able to come out of the rut yet? Because they believe that they declined and that it began after the retirement of the two stalwarts!
Alright. No more of this riddle. Let me cut straight to the chase.
There are two theories of note here—that Sri Lanka have declined in the shorter formats and that it began only after the retirement of the influential duo. However, as you would soon see, neither of them is true.
For starters, Sri Lanka did not actually so much decline as they became stagnant. And the heralds of this stagnation started rearing up even before Sangakkara’s and Jayawardena’s retirement.
One only needs to look at Sri Lanka’s record leading up to the 2015 World Cup to confirm the veracity of the second statement. Sri Lanka’s performance started nosediving post their tour of England in 2014. They lost a series to South Africa at home, were whitewashed by India towards the end of 2014, and lost to New Zealand 2-5 in the run-up to the World Cup.
There was a common refrain across all these defeats—that they were unable to rack up scores in excess of 300. This inability would come to a head in the World Cup, which was a run-fest, to say the least, as they were knocked out of the quarter-finals. All this transpired in the presence of Sangakkara, Jayawardena, and even Tillakaratne Dilshan. So, the decline or the stagnation, no matter how you call it, started even before the retirement of the duo.
Sri Lanka’s inability to go past 300 was not due to their decline in performance. Sri Lanka were never a team that was built to score runs quickly. They were a team of run accumulators who scored just enough to allow their bowlers to help the team over the line by strangulating opposition batsmen on helpful pitches. This was not a concern until around 2014 as most teams employed similar strategies.
The shorter-format revolution
However, starting from 2014, the world saw tectonic shifts in the approach to limited-overs cricket. On one side of the globe, a bouncer would take Phil Hughes’s life in 2014 and a bereaving New Zealand side under Brendon McCullum would play a carefree, no-consequence cricket, on the advice of Gilbert Enoca, against Pakistan in the UAE, winning the Test match and discovering a brand that would hold them in good stead in the process. On the other side, the touring English side would be handed a humiliation, ironically, by the Sri Lankans, which would force them to fire their captain and take a hard look at how they played white-ball cricket under their new captain Eoin Morgan.
These two disparate events snowballed a gradual change the world cricket was already undergoing and sired a cataclysmic revolution in the shorter formats, the culmination of which was the bilateral series between the two sides in 2015, during which the 350-mark was breached several times.
The gap between ODI cricket and T20s became narrower. Eoin Morgan’s England started treating ODIs as an extended form of T20 rather than treating it as a shortened form of Test cricket, carrying the baton forward from his influential friend Brendon McCullum.
This paradigm shift wasn’t just a consequence of ideological changes as several other factors also played a role in changing the DNA of white-ball cricket. One of these factors was the rule change in 2012 that allowed two new balls to be used in ODIs. This rule change meant that the balls remained harder, and, thus, easier to hit while taking reverse swing at the death completely out of the equation, paving the way for a glut of runs.
Besides, the rules governing field restrictions also went under the knife in 2012 as the International Cricket Council (ICC) allowed only four fielders outside the 30-yard circle outside the powerplay overs. Even though the ICC amended this rule once again in 2015 by allowing five fielders outside the ring during the last ten overs, and doing away with the batting powerplay, the field restrictions continued to afford more freedom to the batsmen.
In addition, around 2015, the seam of the white ball was made less pronounced and, as a result, the ball stopped swinging a lot. This meant bowlers like Nuwan Kulasekara, who relied heavily on the new-ball movement, became less effective and batsmen found it easier to go hard at the bowling during the first powerplay.
To top everything off, 2014 was also the year during which the IPL generation started graduating from age-group cricket. The IPL generation, a generation that grew up on a heavy dose of the IPL and T20 cricket, was more adventurous and imaginative with their batting and pushed the bar high for everyone else. All of a sudden, cricket was inundated by enterprising batsmen like Nicholas Pooran, Shimron Hetmyer, and Rishabh Pant.
The fallouts of the revolution
The paradigm shift catalyzed by the aforementioned factors has resulted in an ever more increasing emphasis on power hitting. Batsmen are no more going hell for leather with their eyes closed as new techniques are being devised to infuse a method to the madness.
Batsmen like Andre Russell and Fabian Allen engage in specialized batting drills to aid their power hitting. There are power-hitting coaches like Julian Wood who train batsmen to hit sixes consistently. The vocabulary around batting has also evolved to include terms like swing plane, borrowing liberally from sports like golf and baseball. Moreover, batsmen engage in overload and underload training with different weights of bat and ball to improve their bat speed.
At the same time, batsmen and coaches are in a constant quest to find different ways to improve power hitting. As a result, the understanding of power-hitting has vastly expanded. A few months back, Paul Collingwood explained how he worked with Liam Livingstone to prevent his back hip from collapsing to allow the batsman to get the trajectory of his power shots right.
This newfound focus on power-hitting techniques has allowed batsmen to back themselves to find boundaries far more easily. Jos Buttler recently spoke about how he no more approaches run chases by looking at the required run rate. Instead, he looks at the number of sixes required and the balls remaining. This allows batsmen to see off tougher bowlers and target the easier ones.
The West Indian batsmen have mastered this art as they showed against Sri Lanka in March when Kieron Pollard hit Akila Dananjaya, who he saw as a positive matchup, for six sixes in an over, and Jason Holder was happy to play out a maiden against Wanindu Hasaranga, who he saw as a negative matchup, during a clutch situation, eventually allowing Fabian Allen to finish the game off against Akila Dananjaya.
Recently, when asked about his turnaround with the bat in T20s, Mitchell Marsh credited practicing hitting sixes. Consequently, batting in the shorter formats has evolved from minimizing dot balls and running between the wickets to hitting sixes. Power hitters are now being actively sought out and teams like India even scout for big-hitting talents.
The bowling has equally evolved in titanic proportions to counter batsmen. Medium pacers and swing bowlers have become passe as there is an explosion of express bowlers hitting the hard length. Finger spin and the age-old art of flight have petered out and have been replaced by fast wrist spin.
The entire revolution was lost on Sri Lanka
However, Sri Lanka have failed to pay heed to these changes, let alone adapt. Hence, it is inaccurate to say that Sri Lanka declined. They failed to keep abreast of the changes and, as a result, stagnated. This became obvious when despite winning the WT20 in 2014, none of Sangakkara, Jayawardena, Dilshan, and Mathews could find themselves a spot in any of the IPL teams in the 2014 season. Quite astonishingly, three of them had captained their sides only in the previous season. From leading their sides, losing their spots altogether was a clear sign that cricket had moved on; and how fast!
However, Sri Lanka cricket didn’t. The evidence of stagnation can be felt throughout the system—right from school cricket to the national team. The whole Sri Lankan cricket culture is an ugly relic of an inferior past.
Sri Lanka pride itself in their school cricket system which most claim to be up amongst the best. However, this has more to do with the excessive pride grown-up adults take from their elite schools and the cricket rivalry among them than with the actual output. If Sri Lanka’s school cricket is as good as it is claimed, why haven’t Sri Lanka won an under-19 World Cup yet?
In fact, Sri Lanka weren’t even among the top eight sides in the last two under-19 World Cups because the products of their school cricket system are divested of modern-day skillsets needed to compete with players from other countries. They lack these skills because they are not being coached those.
This creates a domino effect as the domestic system the schools feed and the national team the domestic system feeds both end up with players with superannuated skillsets.
Take Sri Lanka’s spin bowling talent pool for instance. The system is infested with far too many finger spinners and there are very few wrist spinners, let alone fast wrist spinners. Even the few wrist spinners present in the system such as Kevin Koththigoda, Kavindu Nadeeshan, and Vijayakanth Viyaskanth are hardly backed. Even Wanindu Hasaranga was overlooked until Malinga backed him.
Lakshan Sandakan, who was ranked 12th among T20I bowlers before being dropped, was dropped despite having picked up six wickets at an economy rate of 5.74 against the West Indies in his last T20I series. This underscores Sri Lanka’s aversion to wrist spin as they find assurance in steady finger spin. In contrast, whenever other teams pick a finger spinner, they make sure they can also bat.
Sri Lanka also have the habit of romanticizing flighting the ball despite flighted balls getting tonked down the ground. Ravichandran Ashwin, arguably the best finger spinner ever, said in 2016 that “Beating him in the flight and getting him out is gone. It is not the trend anymore. Beating him in the flight and getting hit for a six is the trend now”. Brian Lara and Graeme Swan, during the IPL commentary this season, also spoke at length of the need to bowl fast and straight and argued against flighting the ball.
Despite this common wisdom, you can often hear Sri Lankan commentators valorizing bowlers who flight the ball and belittling bowlers who bowl flat and fast, almost stopping short of saying that they are not spinners at all. The understanding of the coaches in Sri Lanka about spin bowling in the shorter formats doesn’t seem to be any different either.
Express pace also draws a lot of skepticism in this country as Sri Lanka throw their weight behind accurate medium pacers. Lahiru Kumara, despite being able to bowl over 145 kmph and having the ability to hit the deck hard, has constantly been sidelined in the shorter formats.
This fear of pace is no different to the fear of wrist spinners. Sri Lanka are more repulsed by the risk involved than they are intrigued by the rewards. Hence, mediocrity is rewarded in Sri Lanka over brilliance.
Batting in the shorter formats has also failed to evolve in this country. Malinga realized Sri Lanka’s big-hitting woes in 2015 as he dropped both Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne from the T20I team and picked the likes of Chamara Kapugedera, Dasun Shanaka, and Shehan Jayasuriya, invoking the wrath of the entire nation. However, Sri Lanka’s culture eventually prevailed over any little progress Malinga had made.
The island is also rife with too many traditional batsmen who rely more on finesse than power as the system prefers such batsmen over more modern batsmen. Lahiru Samarakoon and Muditha Lakshan, both of whom are hard hitters, managed to play only one innings in the recently concluded Invitational T20 league, as teams were keener on stacking their lineup with orthodox batsmen.
However, nothing can beat the decision of appointing Dimuth Karunaratne, based on his Test batting skills, as the captain of the ODI side shortly before the 2019 World Cup in epitomizing the thinking prevalent in Sri Lanka. England’s ascendency in the shorter formats began with them sacking their captain Alastair Cook, who averaged 36.40 at a strike rate of 77.13, in 2014. Five years later, Sri Lanka not only failed to catch up with England, but they also began moving in reverse, high-fiving the England of 2014 en route.
Almost six years have elapsed since the cultural shift began and that would be a big enough timeframe for a team to at least realize that there has been a radical change, or so you might think. But the system is showing absolutely no signs of even budging as it tenaciously holds on to an old-school system and approach.
The speed bumps in Sri Lanka’s way
One important thing standing between Sri Lanka finally set sailing forward and remaining shackled to the past are the egos of former cricketers. Some of them begrudge the amount of money the present cricketers make and their lavish lifestyle, which will only become bigger and better if there were to be a greater emphasis on T20s.
Thus, you see them questioning their priorities and dedication, often patting themselves on their own back for having been exemplary cricketers who put their nation above money and everything else during their time. This is despite some of them having a checkered past over match-fixing allegations, sexual harassment accusations, and political involvement. Heck, even those who demand that present cricketers put country above T20 franchises frequently played in benefit matches to make money during their time (source: Game for Anything by Gideon Haigh).
This economic jealousy informs their agonistic stand on shorter formats, especially T20s, for there is where the money is. This hostile stand seeps into the cricketing culture and aggravates its stagnation.
Nevertheless, there is more to the stagnation than just the envy of the cricketers of yore. Sri Lanka’s conservatism in cricket also plays a major role in it. As aforementioned, techniques in cricket have undergone radical changes. The metaphorical textbook has undergone revisions. However, Sri Lanka still swears by the old testament.
This dogmatic affixation to the old-school methodologies is almost religious in nature. Sri Lanka would rather persist with their conservative approach even if it comes at the cost of performance.
Sri Lanka still coach only Test match techniques to young batsmen and expect the Test match skills to be transferable to limited-overs cricket. Test match skills are no more transferrable to white-ball cricket as the increase in white-ball specialists in recent times will tell you.
This also means that Sri Lanka still sees power hitters as lesser batsmen. There was a time when slogging, which is still used as a pejorative term, was seen as a sign of poor batsmanship and was condemned to be used only by tailenders. The vestige of such thinking can definitely be seen in Sri Lanka, where Test batsmen with no power continue to dominate the top and middle orders of batting lineups in the shorter formats.
This antipathy to slogging explains why some of the Sri Lankans feel threatened by T20s. Romesh Kaluwitharana once said that 19-year-olds focusing too much on T20s will not make them tactically or technically sound. Marvan Atapattu went a step ahead, and bombastically claimed that knowing how to play a cover drive is important but not hitting five sixes. “No point in someone able to hit five sixes but if he can’t bat for five overs”, he declared. Now, tell that to Kieron Pollard or Andre Russell.
This conservative culture also results in an aversion to high-risk, high-reward cricket. Ishan Kishan, following the game between Mumbai Indians and Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL, in which he scored 84 off just 32 balls, said that he “can’t play a selfish innings here”. By selfish, he meant taking your own merry little time to score runs. In contrast, in Sri Lanka, batsmen are called selfish only when they get out in pursuit of upping the team’s run rate.
Sri Lanka’s visceral hatred for attacking batsmen like Niroshan Dickwella and Bhanuka Rajapaksha, and accusation of them being irresponsible also stem from this cultural antagonism to high-risk cricket.
However, you cannot live in denial for far too long. Eventually, you will have to make some compromises. After losing out on direct qualification to the T20 World Cup in 2021 and facing the risk of not qualifying directly to the 2023 World Cup, Sri Lanka have softened their stand and started talking about playing smart cricket.
Smart cricket is nothing but trying to adapt to modern-day cricket by devising a method within the limitations of conservatism. Sri Lanka want to be ‘smart’ by countering boundary hitting with running between the wickets. In other words, it is about remodeling the barter system to compete with cryptocurrencies. It’s too little and too late.
In a way, Sri Lanka have finally conceded they need to change. However, this acknowledgment has been succeeded by the resignation to the belief that Sri Lanka cannot produce power hitters.
Thus, the talking points in recent times have involved reducing the number of dot balls and running between the wickets. However, the number of boundaries a team hits has a stronger positive correlation with wins than the number of balls a team scores off. In addition, you cannot compete with a team that hits boundaries by running between the wickets.
The sheer number of wickets Sri Lanka have lost to run-outs in the recent past highlights the futility of this strategy. You cannot score off every ball and trying to do so brings a considerable amount of risk. Besides, when teams realize that this is your primary mode of scoring, they can simply bring the field up and plug your run-scoring options. Consequently, you try to pinch risky singles and end up losing your wicket.
The risk involved and the reward you get put to stark relief the inanity of this strategy. You risk your wicket when running a tight single and you get only a run as a reward. On the other hand, the risk is the same when you try to hit a boundary, but the reward is much bigger. But look which method the smart cricket strategy espouses.
Sri Lanka’s smart cricket will be an acceptable ploy if they see this as a stopgap measure while they try to produce power hitters. But the island sees this as a viable alternative to the modern-day big hitting. This is like taking a bullock cart to a Formula 1 race. Just because your bulls are smarter doesn’t mean you are going to be any more competitive.
On the other hand, there has been no attempt to scout for power hitters or even develop them. They want to build a style of play that would suit their conservative thinking rather than the needs of the time. This is another reason why Sri Lanka have stagnated.
Sri Lankans also feel threatened by changes and, hence, they resist them. Changes mean that the personnel involved will have to upgrade their skills. The inability to do so will make one dispensable. Individuals involved in cricket in Sri Lanka fear this. Hence, they defy progress.
Cricket isolation is another reason for Sri Lanka’s stagnation. Unlike in other countries, the current crop of cricketers in Sri Lanka did not grow up watching enough T20. The island did not even have its own franchise league until last year. So, Sri Lanka don’t have its own IPL generation, and as a result, even the upcoming players play an obsolete version of cricket.
Besides, Sri Lankan players and coaches are hardly involved in franchise cricket. This has resulted in ideas and technics from outside Sri Lanka flowing into the island. As a result, Sri Lanka have broken away from mainstream cricket.
Sri Lanka often brings down foreign coaches but every time these coaches try to effect any meaningful changes, the administrators introduce powerful local individuals to tie their hands. This further keeps ideas from outside reaching the island. Sri Lanka is an island not just geographically but also as far as ideas are concerned. The lack of exposure to the outside world has meant the paradigm shift in shorter formats is completely lost on the nation.
The effect of Sri Lanka’s nationalistic fervor cannot also be understated. Sri Lanka sees franchise cricket as a threat to its national identity and often massages its ego by refusing No-Objection Certificates for players to play franchise cricket. England’s revival in the shorter formats was ably aided by them embracing the IPL and encouraging their players to play in it. From seeing the IPL as a threat, they started seeing it as an opportunity and the results are patently obvious.
Lack of brains and intelligence is also another reason for the stagnation. Take Dinesh Chandimal for instance. When he was made the captain of the ODI side in 2018, he opined that it was England’s excellent fielding that had helped them top the ODI rankings after having been ousted in the first round of the 2015 World Cup. You don’t need to have an analyst’s brain to know what England had done differently. Just watching them play would do. But serious cognitive issues have made sure that doesn’t happen.
To top everything off, Mickey Arthur, the present coach of Sri Lanka, said recently “It’s easy to stand and try and hit boundaries, but having the ability to deflect a ball into a gap off a good ball is a real art. That’s the real art of batsmanship”. If hitting boundaries is so easy, why are Sri Lankan batsmen even struggling to do that? Such thoughtless remarks only show how beyond repair the absurdity of all those involved in running Sri Lanka cricket is.
As if this stupidity is not enough, Sri Lanka also have serious difficulties trying to find causes for effects. This leads to often parodical imitation like wanting to appoint Roshan Mahanama as the head coach to ape India’s move of appointing Ravi Shastri as the head coach. Next, Sri Lanka might as well look to appoint a batsman born in a different country as the captain to imitate England appointing Eoin Morgan as the captain and expect it to put Sri Lanka back on track.
Sri Lanka need a cultural revolution
Sri Lanka’s belief that they have declined and that it happened after the retirement of Sangakkara and Jayawardena fails to shed light on the actual causes behind Sri Lanka’s poor performance in the shorter formats. This is also the reason why the poor show is chalked up to the lack of fitness, discipline, and dedication of current players for people believe that the decline is a result of the change of personnel. But the truth is that even if the current players and former players are to swap time periods, the outcome would still be the same.
If the current trend continues, Sri Lanka would soon have a tough time competing with even associate teams. Most of these associate teams play more white-ball cricket than red-ball cricket and their players grow up being coached skills relevant to the shorter formats. In Sri Lanka, however, players grow up learning how to play Test cricket and, in a few years, it will not be a surprise to see Sri Lanka being lapped by associate teams.
Fixing the domestic system is advocated as a solution by all and sundry to Sri Lanka’s predicament. Though a revamp is long overdue at the domestic level, this will not be enough to improve Sri Lanka’s fortune in limited-overs cricket.
The island needs a change to its cricketing culture to do well in white-ball cricket. Sri Lanka’s stagnant cricket culture could see players with modern skillsets being either forced to play conservatively or being sidelined altogether in favor of orthodox players right from the school cricket level. Hence, the change should be effected from the ground up. The shakeup should start from the grass-root level. What Sri Lanka need is a cultural revolution.