Review of Sri Lanka’s World Cup: Familiar issues persist despite renewed hope

Courtesy: ICC via Getty

Sri Lanka’s run in the 2021 T20 World Cup may have come to an end but that has not stopped the island nation from regaling itself with the firm belief that they have unearthed new stars for the future, and with prophecies about the return of their halcyon days. Have Sri Lanka actually turned a corner and arrested their moribund slide in T20Is? Not quite yet.

To be very honest, Sri Lanka did beat expectations by qualifying to the Super 12s without breaking a sweat, thanks mainly to their belligerent bowling. However, three defeats out of five games in the Super 12s threw into sharp relief the continuous prevalence of Sri Lanka’s familiar issues.

In the Super 12s, Sri Lanka managed to beat only Bangladesh, a team that lost to Scotland in the qualifiers and to every team they played against in the Super 12s, and the West Indies, a team that lost to everyone but Bangladesh. Sri Lanka were thoroughly vanquished by Australia in Dubai, and though they seemed competitive against England in Sharjah with the help of the toss and the injury to Tymal Mills, they fell way short of their target. Against South Africa in Sharjah, Sri Lanka managed to drag the game to the last over of the match, liberally aided by Temba Bavuma’s momentum-sucking run-a-ball 46, but lost to David Miller’s power.

The outcomes were consistent with Sri Lanka’s recent record with the win against the West Indies being the only exception. Sri Lanka have lost bilateral series to Australia, South Africa, and England in the last two years. They also lost a series to the West Indies this year. Nonetheless, the West Indies were indifferent with their bowling, and batting tactics throughout this World Cup, so the win against them cannot simply be attributed to improved performance.

So, why has the Sri Lankan team invoked so much optimism among the fans and pundits? One big reason is Sri Lanka’s utter decimation of the associate teams in the qualifying round. Three successive wins, which have been unprecedented since Sri Lanka’s successful tour of Pakistan in 2019, paved the way for an eruption of joy and the team rode this wave of joy well into the Super 12s. Besides, the expectations of the fans had hit an all-time low before the World Cup insofar as even qualifying to the Super 12s being hailed as a silver lining.

Consequently, the optimistic sentiments are more emotional than rational. After all, Sri Lanka’s defeat to England, arguably the best white-ball team ever in the history of cricket, earlier this year was met with fury and outrage. Meanwhile, a string of victories against weaker sides has kicked up a storm of euphoria. Ideally, one would have expected the fans to be forbearing with the former and realistic with the latter.

However, this does not mean that the World Cup campaign did not herald any good news for the team.

Charith Asalanka was a revelation in the tournament as he became Sri Lanka’s highest run-getter with 231 runs at an average of 46.2 and a strike rate of 147.13. This is especially heartening since the southpaw did not have a good LPL. He seems to have turned things around since then within a very short time to become a reliable spin power-hitter.

Asalanka struck at 156.72 against spin during the World Cup while his strike rate of 142.25 during the powerplay helped Sri Lanka overcome the sluggish starts by both Pathum Nissanka and Kusal Perera.

Bhanuka Rajapaksha, on the other hand, walked the talk with an average of 38.75 and a strike rate of 143.51, becoming Sri Lanka’s resident spin power-hitter during the middle overs. When the opportunities were presented, he also manifested his ability to slog medium pacers.

The pace of Lahiru Kumara and Dushmantha Chameera also allowed Sri Lanka to attack oppositions relentlessly. Wanindu Hasaranga, after having a disappointing IPL, rediscovered the right length in the Super 12s, ending up with 10 wickets and a hat-trick in the process. Maheesh Theekshana’s defensive bowling skills saw him go less than run-a-ball in the tournament and strangulate opposition batsmen both during the powerplay and the middle overs.

At the same time, the World Cup also saw an encore of the habitual problems that have been ailing Sri Lanka for a long time.

Sri Lanka struggled to get off to fast starts during the powerplays as the openers Pathum Nissanka and Kusal Perera were unable to break free. Nissanka struck at a measly 93.75 during the powerplay while Kusal Perera’s strike rate was a marginally better 118.

Kusal Perera also struggled for consistency throughout the tournament. He averaged just 17.57 with the bat at a strike rate of 121.78 while his work behind the stumps was anything but clinical.

Pathum Nissanka goes for a pull |
Pathum Nissanka will not even make it into the second XI of most T20 teams. Courtesy: Getty Images

Praises have been heaped on Pathum Nissanka for scoring 221 runs, including two fifties, in the tournament. The captain and the coach had no qualms earmarking him as a future star. But consider this. His strike rate of 117.55 in 8 matches would see him not even make it into the second XI of most T20 teams. And his average of 27.62 shows that he lacks consistency for someone whose staple of batting is the minimal risks he takes.

Nissanka neither has the power to clear the boundary with ease nor does he have the range to score fours as his low strike rate would attest. This prevents Sri Lanka from maximizing the powerplay overs, and puts undue pressure on the batsmen at the other end during the middle overs, forcing them to take risks even against their negative match-ups.

Picking Nissanka into the T20I team, let alone singing his praises, shows that Sri Lanka have not come to terms with the requirements of the T20 format yet. There is a reason why Sri Lanka struggled to go past 160 against all oppositions in the Super 12s except against Bangladesh and the West Indies—the two teams that had the weakest bowling attacks in the group.

Moreover, Sri Lanka’s move to bat Avishka Fernando, whose struggle against spin is no secret, at number four was a tactless one even though it was spoken of in the media as a masterstroke by Mahela Jayawardena, and it proved to be futile as he could only score at an average of 10.24 and a strike rate of 83.87. The right-hander’s inability to start fast and his incapability against spin raise serious questions about his place in the team.

Sri Lanka should also be wary of Charith Asalanka’s limitations as a batsman. He is an excellent player of spin, but he has struggled to slog medium pacers and has had difficulties against express pace. Acknowledging his limitations is important both to use his strengths properly and to back him when his limitations get exploited by oppositions.

The death overs were once again a concern with both the bat and the ball. Dasun Shanaka struggled throughout the tournament to give Sri Lanka good finishes as his strike rate of 117 would tell you. He is, without a doubt, one of the few cleanest hitters in the island. However, his struggle in international cricket has been well documented. Even in this World Cup, he struggled to force the pace in the face of express pace and quality wrist spin. Sri Lanka do not have any alternatives for him either and that shows how shallow Sri Lanka’s talent pool is.

With the ball, Sri Lanka kept dishing out slot balls at the death allowing batsmen to slog them with ease. This was the result of the Sri Lankan pacers relying solely on yorkers to contain the run flow at the death. Even though most good teams use a mixture of hard lengths and yorkers at the death, the Sri Lankan pacers’ options were limited to only one length.

Sri Lanka also failed to maximize the batting skills of Wanindu Hasaranga. Although he was promoted up the order against Ireland in the qualifiers, he was continued to be used as a lower-middle-order batsman during the rest of the tournament.

Maheesh Theekshana may have been marked out as a mystery spinner by all and sundry, but Sri Lanka need to be wary of the fact that his variations are straightforward to pick. He relies mostly on his off-breaks and carrom balls and there are plenty of bowlers who bowl these such as Ravichandran Ashwin, Chris Green, Imad Wasim, and Mitchell Santner. So, bowling a carrom ball does not make Theekshana a mystery spinner. To make better use of him, Sri Lanka should stop treating him like something he is not.

This point can be further justified by the fact that he went wicketless in the Super 12s even though he was wreaking havoc in the qualifiers. A mystery spinner would be a wicket-taker but Theekshana could not do that in the Super 12s because, well, he is not a mystery spinner.

What works for Theekshana is his pace, accuracy, and the fact that he bowls flat. This makes him an excellent defensive spinner in the same league as Washington Sundar, Imad Wasim, and Mitchel Santner. However, one of your specialist bowlers being a defensive option can make your bowling attack less potent. Other defensive spinners also bring an additional skill—in the form of their batting—into their teams to make up for it. But Theekshana does not have this luxury.

So, either Sri Lanka should look elsewhere for a wicket-taking spinner or Theekshana should work on making his variations difficult to pick. The latter is more plausible and preferable.

Players’ performance aside, Sri Lanka’s decision-making was also as fickle as it always has been. A team is not going to pick itself up if the decision-makers are going to continue to have mood swings.

T20 World Cup: Beleaguered Aussie top order get ready to face Sri Lanka  wild child Lahiru Kumara | The West Australian
Lahiru Kumara came full circle in the World Cup. Courtesy: Getty Images

Take Asalanka for instance. He was not a part of the XI that started the campaign because Sri Lanka preferred Chandimal over him for reasons best known to them. Lahiru Kumara was not even considered for the World Cup squad. An injury to Lahiru Madushanka brought him into the squad and an injury to Nuwan Pradeep brought him into the XI. And it took Sri Lanka only a slew of bad outings to drop him from the XI once again. At this point, it should be remembered that Lahiru Kumara actually had a better World Cup than Chameera, being more economical and picking up more wickets.

The Sri Lankan management was also raving about having two bowlers who could touch 150kmph when the fast bowlers were running through batting lineups in the qualifiers. And when confronted with tougher oppositions in the Super 12s and the fast bowlers started struggling, Sri Lanka walked back quickly. Classic Sri Lanka.

However, Sri Lankans can feel relieved by the fact that their team managed to qualify to the Super 12s easily and compete with the top sides to an extent. Be that as it may, they also need to acknowledge that the team still has a long way to go, and the return of the ‘golden’ days is farther than they think, if at all they return.

Such premature fantasies about the return of the ‘golden’ days are also perilous for two reasons: they will eventually lead to pervasive systemic issues being glossed over and will set unrealistic expectations on the team, which will subsequently lead to undue criticisms and hate campaigns on social media when the reality hits back hard.

The next T20 World Cup will be played in Australia where the pitches would offer pace and bounce but there is no Sri Lankan batsman equipped to handle that. Sri Lanka are also to tour Australia and India for bilateral T20 series soon. Unless these two teams decide to experiment, there is a good chance Sri Lanka could be whitewashed.

Sri Lankans need to take cognizance of the fact that this team has not actually shown significant progress. The losses to England, Australia, and South Africa prove that. I do not mean to say that this team should be belittled and criticized. Instead, we need to be realistic about this team and acknowledge the amount of work that needs to be done to become competitive in world cricket again.

This is very important because as the waves of excitement and hope recede with every defeat in the future and the waves of disillusionment and frustration come crashing back, the paeans and love we see today can easily give way for wanton hatred and vitriolic abuse against the team and the players. After all, we have seen it happen many times in the past.