With several seniors missing from the Sri Lanka national team–having being dropped, retired, or making themselves unavailable–the selectors are hoping their young guns will grab the opportunities coming their way. Except for sporadic performances, however, there’s no great sign of a competitive team in the making–at least, for now. Many of the batters average in [...]


Woes overshadow ‘will’

Sri Lanka must perform a miracle to regain its global status with just days in hand before T20 WC

Dinesh Chandimal is the only surviving member from the ICC T20 World Cup winning team of 2014, in which now consultant Mahela Jayawardene was too a part - File pic

With several seniors missing from the Sri Lanka national team–having being dropped, retired, or making themselves unavailable–the selectors are hoping their young guns will grab the opportunities coming their way. Except for sporadic performances, however, there’s no great sign of a competitive team in the making–at least, for now.

Many of the batters average in the mid-20s in the T20 format and strike the ball a little over 100. Sri Lanka’s biggest worry is, therefore, their batting as they approach the World Cup starting next week. Kusal Janith Perera, Dinesh Chandimal, Dasun Shanaka, Bhanuka Rajapaksa, Avishka Fernando, Charith Asalanka and Dhananjaya de Silva form the core group in the current batting line-up but they lack the consistency required to make Sri Lanka a competitive outfit.

Head Coach Mickey Arthur is still optimistic that recent changes to the batting composition will pay off. Against Oman, the top order collapsed but the middle order hung on to provide a winning platform. The form of Avishka Fernando and Dasun Shanaka, two good strikers of the leather, was a good sight. That said, the challenge ahead is tougher.

“That [the batting] is an area we’ve worked extremely hard on over the past nine days. We’ve had three practice games, we’ve had some skill sessions to prepare players to sweep, we’ve identified where and how we want our players to play. We’ve almost scripted a game,” Arthur said before team departed to Oman.

“I think if our batting clicks it’ll give us a really good chance, because I think our bowling attack is very good and our fielding standards have improved dramatically.”

But for many years, batting hasn’t clicked and that’s one reason Sri Lanka is ranked low; and why they lost 52 out of 73 T20 matches (excluding the series against Oman) they’ve played since 2015. It’s also a reason why the selectors are scraping the barrel to see who fits which role. And a reason why several seniors were shown the door at the start of this year.

It is a reason, too, why captains have been changed more often than they should be. A reason why coaches are being hired and fired at will. A reason why the Sports Minister wanted a high-powered technical advisory committee to get involved in cricket affairs. A reason why the technical committee invited Tom Moody to restructure the cricketing landscape of the country. A reason why a new performance-based contract scheme was introduced. A reason why the SLC cracked the whip when disciplined is not upheld. A reason why the anger and the frustration of the fans are visible on social media against players and the Board. A reason why even a hard-fought win against Oman is celebrated. A reason why no one will bet their money on the 2014 champions to go the distance at the T20 World Cup. And it is a reason why Sri Lanka have struggled for many years to come out of this rut.

The win on Thursday was by no mean convincing as Oman fought their way back to lose by just 19 runs. Batting at the top needs urgent attention because no good team will allow the opposition to recover after being reduced to 21 for 3 in five overs to reach a formidable score of 162 for 4 (which Oman did).

In the chase, Oman managed 143 runs for the loss of eight wickets, an indication that Sri Lanka’s bowling also needs fine-tuning before heading to UAE, where the pitches are expected to favour slower bowlers as seen during the ongoing IPL. Against South Africa in the recent series, not only did Sri Lankan batters struggle against the spinners but their spinners weren’t threatening by far. Sri Lankan spinners picked up only four wickets compared to 16 by the South African spin quartet.

No team will go to a World Cup with a squad full of rookies but Sri Lanka has done just that with at least 13 out of 23-man squad having played fewer than 10 games–such is the farcical thinking of the cricket selectors.

Senior players are essential to the functioning of any successful international team but for Sri Lanka experience is not a critical attribute of a successful team as selectors took a drastic decision to show the door on seniors. Only skipper Dasun Shanaka (49), Dinesh Chandimal (59), Kusal Janith Perera (52) and Akila Dananjaya (31) have played more than 30 matches.

Even their experienced players, barring Kusal Janith Perera, who sat out during the Oman series as he is recovering from the hamstring injury, are not genuine match winners. For an instance, Dasun Shanaka averages just above 15 with the bat and he strikes at a little over 106. If he is to set an example, the right-hander needs to fire all cylinders as he did against Oman on Thursday. He was a prolific run-scorer during the T20 domestic league played prior to the South African series but with the added burden as captain leading a dysfunctional team, his personal performance took a severe hit. He made an unbeaten half-century at a good pace against Oman but it shouldn’t be a flash in the pan performance.

On his day, Kusal Janith can be as devastating as any good opener in the world, but can he perform consistently to give Sri Lanka a head start? Avishka has batted well in 50 overs but his T20 returns are below average, scoring 273 runs off 21 innings. By T20 standards, he is too slow, striking the ball under 100, not ideal for the fast-paced game where maximising on the power-plays is key to setting up big scores. The team management then wanted him to bat in the middle and he seemed comfortable there as he plundered a match-winning, unbeaten 83 against Oman.

Chandimal is experienced, as is de Silva, but whether they are playing the right format is a question. Bhanuka Rajapaksa has the aggression but it has often been his downfall. Playing in the important number three spot, he is expected to deliver a calculated innings but what we have seen is him throwing his wicket not understanding what is expected of him.

Batting is further weakened by the suspension of the three established players — Niroshan Dickwella, Kusal Mendis and Danushka Gunathilaka — who broke the team’s Covid protocols during the England series. Their presence could have made the side much stronger on paper as all three of them are good white-ball cricketers but given the decline in general discipline, the Board had no option but to impose strict punishment.

Many have spoken highly of Wanindu Hasaranga, an aggressive leg-break bowler and a hard-hitting middle-order bat, but his recent returns will be a major worry going into the World Cup. He was picked up by Royal Challengers Bangalore along with Dushmantha Chameera. He has taken only three wickets and scored just nine runs off his last five innings. Though he made his IPL debut this season, he was benched after two games where he conceded as many as 60 runs off six overs without picking a wicket.

Chameera, Sri Lanka’s mainstay in the fast-bowling front, is yet to play a game for RCB. And, if he doesn’t, he will come without any match practice for the World Cup as both players missed the Oman series due to their IPL commitments. Chamika Karunaratne, an exciting talent, could be one to share the new ball with Chameera in the playing XI. With Hasaranga struggling to bowl those threatening spells, Sri Lanka’s spinning department looks much weaker with Maheesh Theekshana and Praveen Jayawickrema having little experience at the international level.

Sri Lanka will play against Namibia, Netherlands and Ireland in the first round, hoping to occupy one of the four remaining spots in the main draw.

An early exit from the tournament will spell doom and gloom for many, including Mickey Arthur. Arthur is a well-respected coach who joined Sri Lanka, ranks with a wealth of experience, having coached South Africa, Australia and Pakistan, but his stint with Sri Lanka hasn’t been great. Much of his two years with SLC was lost to the pandemic but the team’s failure to arrest the slide will make him the scapegoat.

The selectors led by Pramodya Wickremasinghe will have a lot to answer for not having a short-term plan for the team in their quest to build a team for the 2023 World Cup. The same applies to the legends who are in various committees from National Sports Council to Technical Advisory Committee trying to recreate Sri Lanka’s cricketing landscape.

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