The difficulty of being Shanaka

Dasun Shanaka
Courtesy: Wisden

Sri Lanka need another 42 runs off 41 balls with 6 wickets in hand to beat Pakistan and advance to the final of the 2023 Asia Cup. Kusal Mendis has just been dismissed and out walks Sri Lanka’s captain Dasun Shanaka ahead of the resident number 6 Dhananjaya de Silva. The rationale is to kill the chase early. A couple of big shots will shut the door permanently on Pakistan. However, he perishes off his fourth ball trying to take on Iftikhar Ahmed, drawing heavy flak on social media. There cannot be a better microcosm of the difficulty of being Shanaka in Sri Lanka than this episode.

Shanaka is a lower-middle-order batsman and the team’s designated and only power hitter. Having to hit boundaries on demand with no time to get set and more fielders manning the boundary, it’s arguably the toughest role in a team. Such a high-risk role is highly variant and doesn’t yield consistency. However, Sri Lanka often fail to acknowledge the fickle nature of this job and deem batsmen at this job as brutes with no brain. Shanaka is neither the only nor the first one to be disparaged as his predecessor Thisara Perera was also subjected to similar ridicule.

However, in contrast to the popular notion, Shanaka is among Sri Lanka’s best at this role. Among all Sri Lankan batsmen who have faced at least 100 balls batting at numbers 6, 7, and 8 during the last 10 overs of an ODI during the last two World Cup cycles, Shanaka’s strike rate of 132.33 is only bettered by Wanindu Hasaranga’s 137. Even though his average of 20.89 leaves a lot to be desired, his real value can be seen in hitting pace as demonstrated by his strike rate of 154.79, which is the best among Sri Lankans. All told, Shanaka’s average of 24.91 and strike rate of 94.57 during the last two World Cup cycles at 6, 7, and 8 are better than Sri Lanka’s average of 23.19 and strike rate of 88.42.  Besides, only Thisara Perera, with 43 sixes, has hit more sixes than Shanaka’s 42. Accordingly, Shanaka is a cut above the rest.

At the same time, his performance indeed pales in comparison to his global counterparts. The best batters in the lower-middle order positions such as Jos Buttler, Glenn Maxwell, and David Miller all average above 30 while striking at more than 145. However, we need to see Shanaka’s poor performance in context. To begin with, Shanaka is not an exception as almost all Sri Lankan batsmen have poor numbers compared to their counterparts. Moreover, unlike his counterparts, Shanaka has had to bat out of his role often given the brittle nature of Sri Lanka’s top order. In this year alone, he has been in before the 30th over 6 times and the 10th 3 times.

Finally, he is deficient against spin as his average of 19 at the strike rate of 82.1 shows as opposed to 28.6 at 103.2 against pace. He has particularly struggled against wrist spin getting out 19 times and averaging 12.2 at 87.2, which can be ascribed to the dearth of wrist spinners at the domestic level and the short time he has had at the international level—becoming a regular only after assuming captaincy—to fix it. Batsmen do have their weaknesses, but better teams tactfully neutralize them by either dynamically adjusting their batting position or having a batsman at the end to shield them from a negative match-up. However, such tactical acumen is far beyond Sri Lanka as the captain has exposed himself to spin on numerous occasions.

On the other hand, batsmen of Shanaka’s breed are a rarity in Sri Lanka and hence, replacements are not readily available. The reasons for the paucity of big hitters range from cultural antipathy to power hitters that regard them as lesser batsmen to poor pitches. Big hitters often don’t get picked without a secondary skillset as teams prefer to stack their batting lineup with top-order batsmen, who take the old-school approach of batting long, depriving power hitters of game time.  Right now, Hasaranga and Chamika Karunaratne are the only contenders for Shanaka’s spot. However, they cannot be considered replacements as modern teams cannot rely only on one hitter and Sri Lanka should ideally have all three in the side. Even if we assume that Sri Lanka do find a replacement, will Sri Lanka acknowledge the capricious nature of the role and show more tolerance toward these players?

This article is not an apologia for Shanaka. In fact, Sri Lanka will have to move on from Shanaka given he will be 36 by the next World Cup. However, Sri Lanka need to acknowledge the difficult nature of his job, its volatility, and his mastery over it in a country that is hostile to it, and look at his performance in the context of his team making his role all the more difficult. Yes, Shanaka’s performance is not good enough to make Sri Lanka compete with better sides, but the solution is not to vilify Shanaka but to fix the cultural and systemic issues at the grassroots level.

Shanaka’s numbers prove that he is one of Sri Lanka’s all-time greats in the lower-middle order and he is Sri Lanka’s first and—until Kusal Mendis turned a corner in the World Cup—Sri Lanka’s best truly modern white-ball player. Sri Lanka should pay him his due respect not only to acknowledge the difficult job he has done but also to cultivate a culture that is conducive to producing power hitters. After all, when batsmen who take risks are denigrated, you are going to be left with only run accumulators.