It was no wonder that Lasith Malinga received a heavy flak and incessant mudslinging from the then former selectors, the media and the fans alike when he decided to jettison Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne from the T20I squad for he was undermining the very foundation of the convictions of Sri Lanka cricket.
“Dhananjaya de Silva, Shehan Jayasuriya, Dasun Shanaka, Chamara Kapugedera, Milinda Siriwardane and Jeffery Vandersay were given chances because they had single handedly won their clubs matches at the domestic level. To win a match single-handedly one should be wise to the art of winning matches. Only those who know the art of winning matches would be able to win matches for their country.” – Lasith Malinga
The humiliating defeat that the Sri Lankan team was inflicted with in the 1st T20I against Australia wasn’t a bolt from the blue nor was it a random, one-off defeat that could be conveniently brushed under the carpet. The defeat was a catharsis of what has been brewing up for as long as two years. Whether the defeat would turn out to be an epiphany for a team that is gradually habituating to a series of defeats, so much so that the consciousness of the cricketing demographic has become callous to it, is moot.
Sri Lanka’s outlook on how the shorter formats should be played hasn’t changed since the 2011 World Cup, even though the shorter formats have undergone a plethora of changes since then. Their mantra for batting has buffered changes and has remained constant for a very long time. The team wants to score as many as possible during the first powerplay, bat out the middle overs so as to save wickets for the death overs and then attempt to press on the accelerator at the death, which is exactly what the International Cricket Council wanted to change and has succeeded in doing so to an extent, if the runs scored in an innings in both forms of the shorter formats in recent times are anything to go by.
An archaic strategy
Sri Lanka’s ploy of dawdling during the middle overs, which often quashed the team’s chances of scoring as many runs as some of the contemporary teams were scoring, was once a viable ploy owing to several reasons. One reason was that Sri Lanka had the luxury of a strong bowling attack that boasted of the likes of Lasith Malinga, Nuwan Kulasekara, Ajantha Mendis, and Sachithra Senanayake. Add to that pitches were comparatively less batsman-friendly than what they are at present and most teams were following a paradigm that wasn’t too different to that of Sri Lanka’s.
But Sri Lanka no more has the services of the veteran, Lasith Malinga, Kulasekara has been shown the door as a result of his poor slew of performances, Ajantha Mendis has lost his mystery completely, and Sachithra Senanayake has been ineffective since remodeling his action. Furthermore, even pitches in England and New Zealand have become as flat as some of the belters in India. Teams too have started stacking their batting lineup with hard-hitting batsmen. Though, in the past, teams had run-accumulators to bat through the innings with a handful of hard-hitters whose sole role was to provide the spike in the run rate towards the end, during the last couple of years most teams have got into the habit of looking up to their hard-hitters to bat long, which has resulted in even 400 runs being achieved in an unprecedented frequency.
However, the Lankan team is still stuck in the yester-era and to top everything off has even failed to perceive the change that cricket has gone through. To make matters worse, even the fans and the media are by hook or crook trying to get back to their ‘halcyon’ past of rotating the strike and stabilizing the innings. The officials concerned, fans and the media are living in a flimsy bubble that anyone who ventures to question their prejudices and self-righteous convictions has come under fire as it was the case with Lasith Malinga.
Failure to see the change
Even when sound cricketing brains like Aravinda de Silva and Kumar Sangakkara are content in playing a batsman like Lahiru Thirimanne at number three in T20Is, it should be said that future of cricket in Sri Lanka looks gloomy. Such is the state of our thinking that Russel Arnold, on air, shamelessly claimed that Sri Lanka is not the sort of side to score 200s in T20Is but a side that could get to somewhere around 178. If the side is not capable of scoring high, isn’t it time that we look to build a side that can get close to 200 on good batting tracks consistently? Or if we are trying to win by scoring around 178 runs, shouldn’t we be playing wicket taking bowlers, even though this is more likely to be futile on the modern day pitches? What is the point of playing bowlers of the ilk of Sachithra Senanayake and Sachith Pathirana if you are trying to restrict the opposition to a score of around 178? If that wasn’t enough Russel also brazenly suggested that Sri Lanka should move on from the match, even though the team has time and time again proved that it is light years behind other teams.
What was the plan behind playing Dinesh Chandimal, Dhananjaya de Silva and Kusal Mendis in the same team? Mendis and de Silva are exceptional timers of the ball but they lack the power that is usually associated with T20I batsmen. They can be an asset during the powerplays and hence would be apposite for batting in the top three. But why was Mendis batting at number five in the first T20I? How many more failures do we need from Thisara Perera to discard him permanently? Wasn’t the lampooning of the A team coach enough to axe Perera once and for all?
All that is clear is that the selectors live in their own world that exists in a different time-space completely oblivious to the reality. They also seem to suffer from a severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which forces them to recall almost every discarded player periodically just to assure themselves that they had made the right decision by dropping them, so as to ease their own anxiety. Why was Senanayake dropped in the first place? Did the selectors ensure that he had rectified the shortcomings that lead to his exclusion before picking him? Why does Seekkuge Prasanna, who averages 53.67 in ODIs and 44 in T20Is (with the bowl, that is), keep getting chances?
It has become a part of the system
It is not just the current selectors who are mired in the sanctimonious incorrigibleness. The previous selection committee too courted players like Seekkuge Prasanna. The succeeding interim selection committee too picked Senanayake ahead of Vandersay, who eventually proved why he deserved a place in the side by bowling well in the match against the West Indies after entering the squad as a replacement for the injured Malinga. With Sandakan having already proved his potential in tests, why is the team still reluctant to playing him in ODIs and T20Is? What has he done that is worse than what a player like Seekkuge Prasanna has done?
Why are Milinda Siriwardane and Dasun Shanaka overlooked constantly? Shanaka is easily the biggest hitter in the country, but why is he being deprived of the chance of settling in the Sri Lankan middle order?
In the ODI series against Australia, the Sri Lankan team tried the same ploy throughout the series. Their plan of consolidating during the middle overs was not bearing fruits just as their ploy of strangling the Australian batsmen with spin. None of the Sri Lankan spinners who played during the ODI series with the exception of Sandakan were wicket takers, and Chandimal’s attempt to use the 34-year-old Dilruwan Perera as a wicket-taker during the 5th ODI backfired big time.
It was the three youngsters- Sandakan in the first innings of the first test, Kusal Mendis in the first and the second test, de Silva in the third test- who inspired Sri Lanka to win the test series after coming back to the island from a two-nil defeat in England. When it is the youngsters who are providing glimpses of hope, why is the team falling back on old, and tested and failed players?
Sri Lanka’s lack of aggression and ruthlessness have also come haunting. In an era during which most teams have adopted a bellicose approach to the game, by playing an over-cautious brand of cricket Sri Lanka are only accelerating their grand plummet. The team is also trying to win wars without waging battles.
The battles that are not waged
In the 4th ODI, there was an episode when Mathews ambled towards the striker’s end with his gloves in his hand, as the striker de Silva attempted to run two. Sri Lanka could have easily pilfered two, but such was the ‘urgency’ shown by the most experienced Sri Lankan batsman that the pair had to settle down for a single. Such lax in the field not only reduces the team’s chances of getting a good score, it also relieves the bowling team of any pressure they might be under. During the middle overs, from what was seen during the last few months, the Lankan batsmen are hesitant to hit boundaries and are content with ‘rotating’ the strike and the irony is that they are not doing it right either. The amount of dot balls the team has played out in the recent would vouch for this fact.
Even during the first T20I, when Adam Zampa came into bowl, overawed by what his compatriot batsmen had done to the bowlers, Zampa bowled one wide outside off anticipating Thisara Perera to come down the track. Here was the sign of a nervous bowler, who was ready to dance to the tune of the batsmen, but Sri Lanka simply decided to see him off, even though they could have targeted him.
Sri Lanka has, in recent past, been reluctant to force the play on the oppositions, thanks to their Atychiphobia, thus being forced to perennially defend against the offensives committed by the opponents.
Doing the wrong thing right
Even though most in Sri Lanka are more likely to be happy with Chandimal’s 43-ball 58, it should be noted that the captain managed only 37 off the 32 ball he faced after the powerplay. A constant counter-argument posited to vindicate Chandimal- wickets were falling at the other end- is irrelevant here since Sri Lanka was chasing a tall score and slowing down citing wickets falling is as ridiculous as emphasizing on rotating the strike on a docile pitch. Somehow, we have made ourselves believe that Chandimal and Thirimanne are the future of Sri Lanka cricket to an extent that even when a better option is available, we are simply blase to it.
It is true that Chandimal has been a consistent scorer for Sri Lanka in the recent past, but a performance is not just a measure of the output but also a measure of efficiency- is he producing the optimum output for the amount of resources he consumes? The number of runs he has scored might force us to take no notice of the amount of balls he has consumed, but in the modern day, it is important to look at the efficient use of resources as a parameter to judge a performance.
It could be argued, without Chandimal, the team’s scorecard could look much worse, but it is more logical to do the right thing wrong as opposed to doing the wrong thing right. Chandimal is doing the wrong thing right. Alastair Cook despite averaging 36.40 in ODIs was dropped from the shorter formats amidst many criticisms, but the fruits of the tendentious decision are there to be seen.
Admittedly, the bowling was poor in the first T20I. But even had the bowling been good, Australia would have ended up with a score well above 200. Sri Lanka’s casual shirking off of their batting mishaps by blaming the bowlers is causing them irreversible damage.
England amassed 444 against Pakistani bowlers, of all bowlers, recently. The West Indies scored 245 against India and India almost chased it down scoring 244. If we are still going to tenaciously clutch onto our deep-rooted conviction that the way we bat is going to help us win matches, then there would be no way by which we are going to stem the spree of defeats we are shamelessly accepting.
For the time being, there is not even a glimmer of hope. Malinga was the first and the only one involved with Sri Lanka cricket to understand the paradigm shift but the kind of things that were said about him for guiding the team in the right direction shows that the retarded think-tank of Sri Lanka cricket is more likely to continue in their insolent path with the chimera that their approach to the limited overs cricket would take their team back to their glory days.
We are happy dancing in our loin cloths and patting ourselves on the backs for concocting a crude bullock cart while the rest of the world is roaming the galaxy in space suites. Our tactics are archaic. Our attitude is obsolete. Our gameplay is ancient. Until we admit this, the defeats will continue. The worst is yet to come.