“We were pathetic, once again," Sri Lanka captain Angelo Mathews said after the loss to Pakistan and exit from Champions Trophy 2017. The words of Mathews summed up Sri Lanka’s day with an honest assessment of the proceedings and saved headline writers in Colombo from the ignominy of having to create a sharp, sensational headline for next day’s newspapers. Pathetic, in the captain’s own words will do just fine.
Ironically, it was the wicket of Mathews that started the slide for Sri Lanka early in the morning. They lost Kusal Mendis and Dinesh Chandimal in quick succession after a brisk start, but Mathews and Niroshan Dickwela consolidated well to take the team to 161/3 in 31 overs. Sarfraz Ahmed, perhaps sensing his team’s ineptness at chasing, gambled with bringing back his strike bowlers from both ends. Junaid Khan answered the captain’s call by bowling a probing 31st over, beating Dickwella three times in a row.
Sri Lanka have struggled with injuries and suspension and came into this match with a batting line-up that was patched together using the spare parts in a warehouse. To compensate for the brittleness of the untested, unreliable spare parts that were just brought in, he had stacked up specialist batsmen till No 7 and Thisara Perera as an all-rounder at No 8.
But one got the feeling that this batting line-up will need the superglue of someone like Mendis or captain Mathews to stay at the crease and hold the innings together. When Mathews turned his bat awkwardly at a Mohammad Amir delivery, Sri Lankan fans feared the worst.
From 161/3, Sri Lanka slid to 167/7, losing everyone they had brought in to provide the extra insurance coverage. Both Amir and Junaid bowled with pace and aggression and were supported by their captain with aggressive field settings. Sarfraz understands that Pakistan’s bowling is at their best when they are looking for wickets. Bowlers who can give you an aggressive spell at a critical juncture of the game have often been the difference between winning and losing during this tournament. That and the ability to hold on to catches. More on that later!
The bowlers added some respectability to the total with the last three Sri Lankan wickets adding 69 runs to give themselves something to bowl at. Sri Lanka's total of 236 wasn’t a winning one but it was a total that could make batsmen nervous in a knockout game. Pakistan’s batting had been found wanting while chasing similar targets in the past.
Sri Lanka’s comedy of errors in the field started in the very first over. Perhaps it was due to the greasy food they were served in the lunch break that Danushka Gunathilaka, generally a brilliant fielder, dropped Azhar Ali at point and then failed to pick the ball while attempting to run him out in the second over.
Fakhar Zaman immediately put the pressure back on the Lankans with his carefree, trigger-happy strokeplay. At 82/1, it seemed Sri Lanka were hoping for an early flight home. But if Sri Lanka had an ally on the ground, it was Pakistan’s batsmen who kept hitting the ball in the air when they could have chased this target with risk-free batting.
Nuwan Pradeep has often picked up a wicket when his side needs the most during this competition and he gave Sri Lanka a glimmer of hope again when he had Zaman caught at fine-leg attempting a hook. Mathews, who was clearly a bowler short in this match, kept his main bowlers on and Pakistan kept playing loose shots. It was clear their batsmen weren’t going to do this in singles; they were going to succeed emphatically or fail embarrassingly. At 162/7 it seemed the latter was more likely.
Lasith Malinga was bowling his heart out in what could be his final game at an ICC tournament. As Amir was showing more poise with the bat than some top order Pakistan batsmen and Sarfraz was looking assured at the other end taking Pakistan to 193, Malinga was brought back in the 39th over, probably the last throw of the dice from Mathews. A forgettable day in the field was about to get diabolical.
Sarfraz scooped one straight to Thisara Perera at mid-on. It was the kind of chance where bowlers start raising their hands in celebration before the catch is completed. But Thisara somehow managed to grass it and every Sri Lankan on the planet let out a sigh in disbelief. Sri Lanka would be excused if they just forfeited the match after that drop. Winning a game after a mistake like this would have been embarrassing. Sarfraz finished the formalities knocking off the remaining runs with a few customary hiccups giving Sri Lankans the refuge of their dressing rooms to hang their shoulders and hide their face.
Sri Lanka entered the tournament as a flawed team with ageing seam bowlers and some exciting batsmen. Mathews favoured playing the extra batsman in every game, a strategy that can work when you are bowling first, but it’s hard to hide your part-time bowlers when you are defending a smallish total. The partnership between Mendis and Gunathilaka against India was the highlight of the tournament for them.
The team’s immediate task is to work on its fitness and fielding. The great Sri Lankan teams of the past had brilliant batsmen and reliable bowlers but they always took pride in being a world class fielding unit. This team has a lot of work to do in all three departments of the game to live up to the expectations of a great cricketing nation.