Before the provincial tournament that was played in the prelude to the World Cup, Ashantha de Mel had asked for 5mm of grass to be left on the pitches to mimic the ‘English’ conditions. Fast forward two months, the same Ashantha de Mel is complaining about green pitches in England during the World Cup. His complaint includes a whole laundry list of problems—from an absent swimming pool, the media writing his team off to a resourceless Sri Lankan coach (no, not Hathurusingha even though he may soon join the roll call). Fortunately, it doesn’t include condoms that are one size too many for him.
It is not as if the pitches have been unfair to Sri Lanka. To quote Michael Holding, “The green is only a mirage”. According to CricViz, against Sri Lanka at Cardiff, the New Zealand fast bowlers found 0.14o less swing, and just 0.12o more seam movement than this year’s average. Against Afghanistan, Sri Lanka lost three wickets in an over to Mohammed Nabi, an off-spinner. Ashantha de Mel had clicked pictures of the ‘green’ top in the Oval before the game against Australia and was getting ready with a fresh complaint, only to have Australia score 334 batting first. No wonder no one wanted to face the media following that game.
Surely, there can’t be anything wrong with the team he picked. After all, the brave Test batsmen—who face the “brunt of fast bowling” unlike the pusillanimous white-ball batsmen—picked specifically to counter the moving ball cannot be expected to bat well on pitches that wear a tinge of green. It can’t be their fault or his. ICC must certainly be conspiring against this team that has only won just 8 out of their 29 ODI matches since 2018.
Ashantha de Mel has time and again proven himself to be a pigheaded megalomaniac. This is alright if you have a good cricketing brain to go with. But the problem is that he is also an idiot—an idiot with an inflated opinion about himself who imposes himself on others and tries to shove his views down others’ throats.
He had no compunction firing all those who were slowly establishing themselves in the team and thought performances during a hastily hashed together shtick of a tournament adequate enough to merit a World Cup berth. Dickwella and Shanaka, two of the victims of de Mel’s mass purging, have already had a good tour of India with the A side.
However, the problem isn’t Ashantha de Mel. It’s rather the power that appointed him that obviously wanted a disruption hoping the shuffle would magically conjure a side that would perform well in a World Cup of all tournaments. This is not new to Sri Lanka cricket. On the eve of the 2016 WT20, Sri Lanka’s then Sports Minister sacked the entire panel of selectors and appointed a new one headed by Aravinda De Silva alluding to the poor performance of the team. It’s not as if it is a steady plan and consistent policies that win you World Cups. You can almost always sack the selectors, drop the incumbent players, appoint a new selection committee at the eleventh hour, have them pick players purely based on their own ill-informed opinions, and go to a World Cup with the irrational belief that you can win it.
It is felicitous to ask on what basis the selectors are chosen. Right now, it doesn’t seem like they are picked for their talent identification knowledge, cricketing brain, performance analysis skill or any proven track record. From Ashantha de Mel, Labrooy to Kapila Wijegunawardane and Aravinda de Silva, the past selectors were all appointed out of the blue when they had absolutely no involvement in the running and management of any cricket team at any level in the recent past. It is less likely they could have been wise to the talent pool available, and the skillsets and strategies needed to win in the modern day. The only criterion of their appointment seems to be that they are all erstwhile cricketers. They lacked any professional credentials you would expect of anyone involved in scouting talents.
The head coach, on the other hand, is expected to prove his worth and professional ability before being picked. But the irony is that the political forces find it appropriate to have freshly appointed selectors who had been disengaged with cricket thitherto to veto the plans of the coach appointed thus. However, such last-minute, crisis-solving antics of the ministers cannot be entirely blamed on them.
Sri Lankan fans, whose voices are now amplified by social media, and the traditional media want quick fixes and prompt solutions for the team’s predicaments. When people expect unicorns, they get politicians who promise them unicorns. Let it be the Ministers of Sports or the board of administrators, they don’t act in the best interest of Sri Lanka cricket. They are there to boost their own popularity by associating themselves with one of the strongest brands in Sri Lanka. So, it’s no surprise that they end up making populistic decisions. Fans and the media want the captain sacked? Done. Fans want a new coach? Done. Fans want the same coach fired months later? Yes, done with pleasure.
This has been the major reason behind the volatile nature of the Sri Lankan team setup. Limited Overs Cricket has undergone rapid changes in the recent past. Skills relevant ten years ago are no more relevant today. Slogging is no more a blind hack at the cricket ball. There is a method to this madness. And batsmen are trying to perfect their technique of slogging. Playing a big shot is no more a risk and coaches are finding different ways to minimize mistakes while going hell for leather.
Our batsmen are far behind. They don’t have the luxury of modern-day coaching. They are made to cope with selectors whose ideas are antediluvian and obsolete. The system sacrifices brilliance at the altar of consistency. Paddle scoops and reverse sweeps are resented. An attacking mindset is seen as more a threat and less an asset.
The need to invest in players
Under such circumstances, the only place our batsmen can learn to bat the modern way is international cricket. So, it is paramount that they are given the time to learn. Kusal Perera was highly inconsistent during his larval stage but his game-changing potential was apparent even then. Now, he has fast become a mainstay in the current Sri Lankan setup. The performance that we see from him today is the result of years of investment and persistence. We shouldn’t forget that his ODI average was under 30 before this World Cup. If you want match-winners, then that is the sort of patience you ought to show with other young talents.
But the quest for change of fortunes overnight has resulted in players being picked and dropped on form. When there are no long-term plans to build a match-winning side and there are only short-term plans to win the immediate tournaments, the tenor of the team is going to be erratic. A board that is genuinely interested in the well-being of cricket would withstand the mounting pressure from the fans and the media in order to give the time the team needs to evolve. But what we have are self-centered publicity freaks. It is this desperate thirst for immediate solutions to gratify the fans and the media that has seen potential match winners being sidelined in favor of dime a dozen run grafters. Players are picked and dropped on whims. Attacking players are abhorred and accumulators are embraced.
The fetish for run accumulators
The current chief selector lamented to the media about the lower order batsmen practicing hitting sixes and demanded that they practice their defensive shots. Charith Senanayake, the former team manager, stressed on the need to play conventional cricket. This despite, England, the red-hot favorites to win the World Cup, playing anything but orthodox cricket.
We are only half-way through the tournament but we have already witnessed 16 innings in excess of 300 runs. This amounts to close to 36% of total innings played. In comparison, only 29% of the innings in the 2015 World Cup breached the 300 mark. The average runs scored in this tournament and the average run rate are 34.72 and 5.89 respectively, head and shoulders above any other World Cups. Yet, we have experts emphasizing on orthodox batting and defensive skills.
Sri Lanka’s batting ailment in this tournament is being blamed on the middle order. But consider this: When Kusal Perera got out against Australia, Sri Lanka’s run rate was 7.42. By the time Thirimanne got out, it had come down to 6.42. When Dimuth was dismissed it was 5.78.
What made the run rate slide so perilously, you may wonder. The pitch wasn’t difficult to bat on. Wickets didn’t fall in a heap and there was no pressure to absorb. It wasn’t good bowling either. This stodgy period saw only the likes of Glen Maxwell and Behrendorff bowl. Yet, despite the raucous start, the Sri Lankan top order let the asking rate creep up. This is not rocket science. The reason was our top order’s sheer inability.
Dimuth is very much a part of the problem
Dimuth’s 97 off 108 balls has received many laurels. But this is the problem with judging a batting performance holistically by the number of runs scored. Dimuth scored his 50 in 44 balls. His next 47 runs would take 64 balls. Modern-day analytical methods appraise performances during different phases. Measuring performance by overall numbers is anachronistic. Take the case of a fast bowler who picks 3 wickets and gives away 10 runs during his first five overs in the first powerplay, and then goes for 50 runs off his last five at the death. His overall figures might read 2 for 60 runs, but does that amount to a great performance?
When you have an established batsman in the crease, you would ideally expect him to take responsibility and try to dominate the bowling. Of course, Dimuth’s role in the team is different. He is supposed to anchor innings. But still, it is not too much of an ask to expect him to turn the strike over without getting bogged down and score at run-a-ball. Yet, get bogged down is what he did. His strike rate continued to descend but you would expect it to ascend as the batsman becomes more accustomed to the conditions.
Sure, Thirimanne’s innings made Dimuth’s innings look a lot worse. But then again, these two innings weren’t an aberration. This is exactly what was expected of them by the chief selector. After all, this team was picked only to bat out 50 overs, not to win matches.
The end result only shows the fallibility and foolishness of the strategy and not the fragility of the middle order. After all, how is it fair to see off Australia’s weaker bowlers, let the asking rate climb up to 8 an over, and expect your middle order to complete the chase against two of Australia’s best bowlers during the third powerplay when there would more fielders on the boundary than during any other part of the innings?
But Sri Lanka pine away for batsmen like Karunaratne. It is in batsmen of his nature that the island finds its hopes reposed. So, the islanders duping themselves into placing their belief on the Test opener is least surprising. This is a country that feels threatened by bohemian players. It wants to feel safe. And it seeks solace in the dreariness of the innings played by the likes of Dimuth and Thirimanne. The island regales itself in the ephemeral chimera of hope and assuredness engendered by such slow-cook approach.
Modern problems require modern solutions
Attacking players can turn games on their own head and win you matches. But they also make defeats sting. You either end up scoring 300 plus or get all out under 150. The problem with brilliant batsmen is that they are not always brilliant. The good thing about average batsmen is that they are always average. Here is where the possible secret to Sri Lanka’s escape hatch resides. If they want to win, they need belligerent batsmen. At the same time, they will have to suffer embarrassing defeats, at least until the batsmen learn to sustain their brilliance. But they have rather chosen to be average; to avoid humiliating defeats and save some pride. They aren’t looking to win but merely to make their graves look better.
A lazy argument against this may be that it is only Dimuth who is scoring. It is worth mentioning that on the flat pitches that you get for shorter formats these days, surviving isn’t a difficult task. Any average batsman can do that. Inflating your average at the expense of your strike rate is in no way going to serve your team.
In 2016, Chandimal averaged 59.63 in ODIs and struck at 77.72. He was hailed as a lone warrior then despite the detrimental effect his strike rate had on the rest of the batsmen. Mathews averaged 63.66 and 52.50 in 2016 and 2017. His strike rate was 76.91 and 75.35. Their averages had to take a steep fall for criticisms to arise against them. When you waste balls to save your wicket, other batsmen will have to force themselves to take risks to get to a par score, often losing their wickets in quick succession. Later on, these defeats would be blamed on the collapses but the lumbering innings that triggered them would escape scrutiny.
Dimuth has a limited range of shots and isn’t a free-flowing batsman. Every good ODI team has a run accumulator to bat through their innings. But the difference between them and Dimuth is that they can score all around the ground and at run-a-ball without taking any risks. While they are less likely to get mired down, Dimuth has always been guilty of it. Dimuth’s strike rate in this World Cup is a meager 75.52. In comparison, Joe Root, Virat Kohli, Shakib Ul-Hasan, Usman Khawaja, and Babar Azam, all those anchor the innings for their team, strike at 99.72, 100.56, 103.40, 100.53, and 88.58 respectively. Only Kane Williamson and Shai Hope have a lower strike rate than Karunaratne.
Things are less likely to improve for Karunaratne as bowlers, as the tournament progresses, are more likely to exploit his weakness. Thus far, mistaking Dimuth for a typical sub-continental batsman, bowlers have desisted giving him width and bowled short at his body—his strong zone. But with time he will be found out and have his limitations exploited. Even during the match against Australia, Dimuth’s predictable range of scoring was found out as Aaron Finch had an unusually finer backward point fielder deployed to get him out caught off one of his go-to shots—a dab to the third man region.
Such batsmen are not going to help Sri Lanka’s cause. With them in the side, the best-case scenario is an acceptable defeat. But with dynamic batsmen, the best-case scenario is a win. It’s true that such dynamic batsmen have been inconsistent and have got out playing poor shots. But the solution to playing poor shots is not playing no shots at all. These batsmen should learn to choose the right shot wisely and this can come only through international experience.
The way forward for Sri Lanka is to identify the batsmen who have the skillsets required by the shorter formats and persist with them. In the process of building a modern team, we may lose many matches. But it’s not as if we are winning matches now with these run grafters either. So, Sri Lanka have nothing to lose by eschewing wins to build a side. Only patience and consistent selections can help Sri Lanka emerge out of the chasm they find themselves in.
Be it as it may, it is a given that it is not going to happen. Sri Lanka will most probably sack the entire squad post the World Cup and select a fresh one. The head coach would be given the boot and there will be a new selector. And the nation would once again hope that the abrupt change would bring good fortunes, only to be disabused a few months later and demand another abrupt change. After all, there need not be a game plan to win as elucidated by the earnest supplication for wins from the team in social media as if they can miraculously start winning on demand.
The vicious wheel of abrupt and drastic changes will continue spinning in Sri Lanka as the shorter formats evolve faster and move further away from the ambit of Sri Lanka’s orthodox ability. No reasonable person can expect this country to improve their fortunes without coming to terms with the paradigm shift shorter formats are undergoing. At best, the team will remain stagnant. At worst, it will slide further.
Tests haven’t evolved much for a long time. So, Sri Lankan players’ skill sets are still relevant. There is a good chance that this team will at least be a force to reckon with in Tests. But shorter formats have become more competitive, intense and professional. The nation is struggling to keep pace. It is time we stop living in denial, liberate ourselves from our irrational hopes, and acknowledge the fact that it’s all over. Sri Lanka need to forget shorter formats altogether.