Sri Lanka’s free-fall in world cricket in the recent past has been alarming. The team was expected to lose some matches but never were they expected to surrender without a fight. There is a new off-putting trend about the Sri Lankan players that has become more and more conspicuous over the time. The team is flaccid and the players have become lethargic- more due to lack of confidence than physical fitness.
When Jerome Jayaratne took over as the interim Head Coach of Sri Lanka, he made no bones about some of the fielders’ anxiety over catching balls. The players were so demoralized that many of them feared that they would drop the catch as the ball approached them. The same trepidation seems to be still haunting this team.
The team has seen worse in the past. But every time they were ensnared by challenges, the team rallied together and gallantly fought back. The Sri Lankan brand of cricket was chiefly about the never-say-die attitude than flying goliaths over the boundary line. Youngsters are supposed to bring in a lot of energy, but that is hardly evident in the field.
However, it is not new for Sri Lanka to run into an ICC tournament with a poor pre-tournament record. In an optimistic perspective, one could argue Sri Lanka has always upped their ante during flagship tournaments.
So, not everything is pear shaped for Sri Lanka. They will not be barging into India, Pakistan or Bangladesh in the group stages and if they manage to engender enough momentum, then they can fancy their chances of going all the way. The team is replete with match winners, and Sri Lanka’s primary goal should be having, at least, a few of its cylinders firing. The first step to upend the fortunes is to play the right XI.
The opening conundrum
The ban imposed on Kusal Perera has turned the side topsy-turvy as the team is in an earnest need to find a like-for-like opening batsman. Dhanushka Gunathilake shone brightly with the bat initially, but flickered in the series against India and his unimpressive records at the provincial T20 tournament comfortably saw him out of the T20I side.
To aggravate Sri Lanka’s concerns, TM Dilshan hasn’t had a rosy streak of T20I matches and thus, Sri Lanka has been forced to make tough calls.
Momentum is necessary for a format as short as T20 and if the openers are going to stutter, it can easily sap the rhythm of the whole batting lineup. TM Dilshan has become really conservative with the bat, which works for him in ODIs as he is now able to anchor most part of the innings, but that subverted batting style has come haunting both him and the team in T20Is.
Dilshan’s run-a-ball innings are too slow for T20Is and a failure to provide a quick start can severely hamper the impetus of the whole batting lineup. It is true that Dilshan has been a great servant of Sri Lanka Cricket, but the team is quickly running into a position where tough decisions have to be made. Sri Lanka should look for other options to open the innings.
Even though, against Pakistan Dilshan hit back at critics with 56-ball 75, his innings hardly took off on what was proven to be the best batting pitch hitherto. The openers occupied the crease for too long without trying to increase the rate of scoring, which resulted in the team not scoring what would have been adequate on this pitch.
Dinesh Chandimal’s promotion to the crest has been beneficial for him thus far, even though the popular opinion in the social media is that he was too slow. But comparing his innings with that of Virat Kohli would evince the fact that the they have both scored almost at the same rate. Unlike Dilshan, Chandimal is amongst the runs and with better batting wickets in India might come innings at a better strike rate from the wicket-keeper batsman.
Exclusion of Dilshan from opening the innings opens up the opportunity for either of Niroshan Dickwella or Shehan Jayasuriya at the top slot. Of the two southpaws, Niroshan Dickwella has a better technique and is a better timer of the ball than Shehan, who is a hard-hitter. Dickwella’s fluent stroke making along the ground and his ability to hit through the field will make him an ideal foil for a batsman like Chandimal. i
Chandimal, if his recent performance is a semblance of his real ability, can be expected to anchor the first half of Sri Lanka’s innings while Niroshan Dickwella can be allowed to be rambunctious.
Dilshan’s subdued batting can make him an ideal number three while the performance of Shehan Jayasuriya at number three in the recent past cannot be ignored. Dilshan has proven himself to be a great strike-rotator, an important trait for a number three, but Shehan Jayasuriya’s ability to hit boundaries sans much risk place him at an advantage.
Dilshan has been struggling to find the fence in recent times, and as the pressure mounts, he often resorts to paddle sweeps and scoops. Another new alarming feature that can be observed about Dilshan is that he moves across the stumps and tries to scythe the ball through mid-wicket with a high backlift- every sign of a man struggling to time the ball properly. Even though batsmen at the international level suffer poor runs of form, at the ripe old age Dilshan is in, form, once lost, is almost lost forever. Should Sri Lanka risk a few more games with Dilshan hoping that he would strike the right chord or should they be looking at a youngster who has fared better than Dilshan is a mooted question. The presence of Kapugedera, who is as brilliant as Dilshan in the field, and the availability of spin bowling options between Milinda Siriwardene and Shehan Jayasuriya only make Dilshan a dispensable player.
In my perspective, Sri Lanka should look ahead at the future and play Jayasuriya at number three.
After languishing in the lower order, Chamara Kapugedera was finally given a chance at number four, ahead of Angelo Mathews and he wasted no time in claiming this position as his own. Kapugedera seems to have the highest range of shots in the current lineup and his ability to send balls soaring into the stadium makes him the ideal number four. The right-hander also takes some time to get settled, which he can afford to at that position, and once in, Chamara can turn games on his own head.
Even though Angelo Mathews patrols that position in the current team, Milinda Siriwardana is the one who should be batting at this position. As was evident in the game against Bangladesh, Angelo consumes a lot of dot balls, despite atoning for the missed opportunities during the tail of his innings with big hits. Such style of batting naturally makes him a very good finisher, but at number five this type of innings can make or break the momentum for his team. Middle order batsmen are expected to be good strike rotators and Mathews’s penchant for playing dot balls can stall the team’s momentum.
Milinda, on the other hand, has divulged his ability to deposit bowlers into the stands soon after he marks his guard and his sensible batting can become handy when the spinners operate. The left-hander has also stitched together excellent partnerships with Chamara Kapugedera in recent times, and their presence in the middle order can help the team propel themselves during the middle overs.
Angelo Mathews at number six might sound a tad defeatist, but Mathews would better serve the team at this position than a place higher. Against New Zealand in Auckland, when the entire batting order flopped, Angelo Mathew’s lone battle earned Sri Lanka a score of 142 with Mathews scoring 81 of those in just 49 balls. The remarkable feature of that innings was that 56 of those runs came while batting with the tail and Sri Lanka managed to add 72 after their sixth wicket fell.
Mathews is the best in the team when it comes to batting with the tail and the team could easily add 20-30 runs extra if Mathews bat with the lower order. Even though Mathews might personally be able to score more batting at number five, the team can greatly profit by having him at number six.
Dasun Shanaka came into the Asia Cup with a great reputation of power-hitting, but his performance in the Asia Cup was unbecoming. Sri Lanka doesn’t have much time to wait for him to deliver the goods and hence, must play Thisara Perera at number seven.
Perera at number eight can be a liability for the team since his bowling has jaded out in recent times, but at number seven his bowling can be considered a bonus. He also gave glimpses of hope against India and his experience with Indian conditions would help him do better with the bat than the rest of the contenders.
Lasith Malinga, Dushmantha Chameera and Nuwan Kulasekara are shoo-ins in this team and the only place that can be scrutinized is the place of Rangana Herath. Despite being experienced, Herath could not pick many wickets in this Asia Cup and he failed to contain the run flow in some of the games.
Sri Lanka cannot expect rank turners in India and since Herath is not potent in tracks that don’t offer much spin, Sri Lanka should look to give Jeffrey Vandersay a chance. Leg spinners, by nature, are wicket takers and Vandersay’s track record with the A team is nothing but brilliant. Having a wicket taking spinner would be one of the keys to success in India against non-sub continental teams and not possessing an X factor in the spin bowling department would deprive Sri Lanka of the traditional advantage they have had against teams like England and South Africa.
Vandersay might prove to be expensive, but given the depth of bowling, Sri Lanka has, the team can be expected to find alternatives if the leg spinner is going to have a forgettable day.
It is not the end of the world for Sri Lanka and if the team can make some radical moves with inflicting damages on the opposition being the chief goal, instead of taking steps to control damage, then the islanders could push their limits to, perhaps, be the surprise package in the world tournament.