The Indian tour should make Sri Lanka introspect, not panic

Sri Lanka vs. India
Courtesy: Outlook India

The ODI leg of Sri Lanka’s tour of India produced expected outcomes both on the field and off it. Sri Lanka were expected to lose the ODI series to India in India—to one of the favorites to win the World Cup in a country Sri Lanka have historically fared worse. At the same time, the demands to ring in wholesale changes to Sri Lanka’s ODI squad were also expected despite the sought-after players not having a good record to swank about. So, do the losses in India warrant a radical shakeup in the team? What should Sri Lanka’s ideal response to the tour be? Let’s examine.

For starters, the campaign to bring back the seniors had started following the LPL and the Indian tour was just the right excuse the campaigners needed despite Sri Lanka remaining undefeated in four successive ODI series before that. Sri Lankan journalists, who are at the forefront of the campaign, now demand seniors from Angelo Mathews to even Lahiru Thirimanne to be brought back and they also have the brass neck to cite India bringing back their seniors like Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma, who by the way is their captain, as a prime example. Making such radical changes before a World Cup is nothing new to Sri Lanka as they have already abortively tried this before the 2016 World T20 and the 2019 World Cup. Besides, Sri Lanka failed to do well in the 2019 World Cup despite the presence of the seniors who these journalists insist on bringing back.

On the other hand, India haven’t lost an ODI series at home since the 2019 World Cup, and their emphatic wins against New Zealand, the second-ranked ODI side then, in the subsequent ODI series should manifest their hegemony in ODIs at home. To top it all off, Sri Lanka have never beaten India in India in an ODI series and have beaten them only thrice in 16 games since the 2015 World Cup.

On that account, insisting on seniors, who themselves have a poor record, to be brought back into the side because of a series loss to India in India makes no sense even though it makes complete sense in the world of Sri Lankan journalists. However, this does not mean Sri Lanka should gloss over the defeats against India as they have once again, just like in 2014, given Sri Lanka a crash course on how to play ODI cricket.

The Indian ODI series was a reality check for the Sri Lankan team that had played their previous five ODI series at home on slow, turning surfaces that nullified their weaknesses and accentuated their strengths. Such pitches ‘doctored’ to suit the home side are few and far between in the shorter formats as the global norm is to prepare good batting wickets. Consequently, this series in India in normative ODI conditions was not only a litmus test for Sri Lanka to see where they stand in ODIs, but it was also a very good dress rehearsal for the upcoming ODI World Cup.

However, expectedly, both Sri Lanka’s batting and bowling were left exposed, the batting more so than the bowling. What was evident in the way Sri Lanka batted in the entire series was that their approach is very old school in that they rely more on accumulating runs during the first two powerplays, with every top-order batsman trying to follow the same approach of playing the long innings, while confining boundary hitting to the death. This strategy may have held them in good stead on the slow pitches of Sri Lanka thus far, but on a standard ODI wicket, as we saw in India, it makes them look pedestrian.

They were indeed rocked back by early wickets—you expect that when faced with an elite new-ball bowler like Mohammed Siraj and the travails of the New Zealand top order in the subsequent ODI series corroborates this—but they made no effort to reverse the pressure on India as they were hellbent on absorbing it. The ramifications of not exerting pressure on the bowlers were well evident when they, despite being only one down when crossing the 100th run mark, allowed the Indian bowlers to not only come back into the game but also dominate them in the 2nd ODI.

This lack of intent from the batsmen is the result of treating ODIs like the shorter version of Tests, that too in the era of BazBall. The major reason for Sri Lanka’s revival in T20Is has been their new-found dynamism throughout an innings, thanks to the intent of Kusal Mendis, Bhanuka Rajapaksa and Charith Asalanka at the top and throughout the middle overs. It is high time Sri Lanka take their learnings from T20Is to ODIs and treat ODIs as the extended version of T20Is.

Even though purists would still double down on Sri Lanka’s ODI approach, insofar as blaming Sri Lanka’s failure on the batsmen’s lack of patience and inability to build an innings, so much as a modicum of rationality is enough to understand why this is wrong. This build-and-launch strategy allows bowling teams to backload their best bowlers for the death and use their weaker bowlers during the middle overs, gives bowlers the opportunity to settle into a good rhythm, encourages fielders to creep in during the middle overs making strike rotation tougher, and whenever a wicket inevitably falls, it allows the bowling side to easily come back into the game. Besides, the powerplay rules allow more fielders outside the ring at the death than during the middle overs, which makes boundary scoring easier during the middle overs than at the death. Even the seemingly more progressive approach of holding one end up while attacking from the other end makes no sense as it leaves attacking batsmen vulnerable to negative matchups and results in a sharp drop in the scoring rate whenever the attacker gets out.

Runs scored per 100 ball via 6s, 4s and by running on average

To see how much the emphasis on accumulation has affected Sri Lanka, we only need to look at the numbers. Considering the runs scored in 100 balls on average, since the Indian series in 2021 (Sri Lanka were unsettled until then), Sri Lanka have scored 6.6 runs in sixes, 32.9 runs in fours, and 45.6 runs by running. In contrast, since the 2019 World Cup, the top ten teams in the world have scored 11.2 runs in sixes, 31.8 runs in fours, and 44.1 runs by running. Evidently, the biggest difference is in the number of runs scored via sixes, a difference of 4.6 runs. This disparity becomes even more pronounced when you consider the record of India, Pakistan, England, Australia, and New Zeeland, who I consider to be the top ODI sides now. They have scored 12.1 runs in sixes, 34.7 in fours, and 46 runs by running. Thus, we can see that Sri Lanka have not hit enough boundaries, especially sixes.

Nevertheless, the absence of intent from the Sri Lankan batsmen is as much a result of their inability to clear the field consistently as it is of their archaic strategies. Sri Lanka don’t have many batsmen with the required skillset in the domestic circuit either. Unlike the domestic systems of countries like India and England that are well-tuned to produce batsmen endowed with the modern-day skillset, the Sri Lankan domestic system is still submerged in an antiquated culture, a view that is borne out by the fact that the NSL limited-over tournament last year saw only three scores above 300. Consequently, there is no immediate fix for Sri Lanka’s batting problem.

Sri Lanka’s batting isn’t the only thing that is obsolete as even their bowling still smacks of traditional thinking. Their reliance on the fast-medium pace of Kasun Rajitha backfired spectacularly, as did the much-romanticized slow, loopy spin of both Dunith Wellalage and Jeffery Vandersay. However, unlike batting, Sri Lanka’s bowling can still be bolstered by express pace bowlers and fast spinners if the right decisions are made by both the selectors and the team management.

To sum up, the ODI series against India was an eye-opener for Sri Lanka as they were once again served a reminder about how old-school their brand of cricket is. However, there is no immediate fix for their travails as it requires a shakeup from the grassroot level. Sri Lanka can keep bringing back any number of seniors any number of times, but the end result is going to be just the same, if not worse.

In an ideal world, the Indian series should make Sri Lanka introspect about their continuous slump in ODI cricket since the 2015 World Cup instead of making them panic. If anything deserves an overhaul, it is not so much the team as the whole cricketing culture in the island. However, since this is an island that loves rainbows and unicorns, I can already see the seniors gallivanting into the team and the cricketing culture once again evading scrutiny.