The two pillars that held together Sri Lankan cricket in the 21st century, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena, bid goodbye after the 2015 World Cup and since then the national team has been a struggling story of upholding their reputation as one of cricket's premier teams. Barring a win against India in the Champions Trophy, Sri Lankan cricket has looked rotten, dying and lacking enthusiasm. Their skipper, Angelo Matthews has tried his best to maintain a fight, but the series loss against Zimbabwe seems to be the final nail in Lanka's coffin.
After the second loss to Zimbabwe in the series, Matthews had commented, "In these games, where our batsmen have done well, our bowlers didn't perform well — both in this match, and in the first one we lost. Our fielding also hasn't been good at times. Against Zimbabwe, we need to play better than this."
He was right. Sri Lanka definitely needed to play better, and a series win might have helped them maintain their status. But that was not to be as a determined Zimbabwean team outclassed them in the series decider. Their backyard was their fortress, with high walls and impenetrable barriers.
The exploits of Muttiah Muralitharan, Sanath Jayasuriya, Aravinda de Silva, Arjuna Ranatunga, Chamunda Vaas, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena are etched in the walls of this fort. They were a real force at home, a force which even the Australians found difficult to breach.
Yet a team, depleted of resources and fighting to maintain their Test status, came and conquered them with the ease of a butcher slaying a goat. Worryingly, Sri Lanka barely put up a fight. When they did, it did not last long. Losing three games to the Zimbabwean team of this era is crime. The decline has been on for some time now, with their woeful record since the 2015 World Cup underlining how poor they have been.
Sri Lanka have won just 16 ODIs and lost 25 since the 2015 World Cup, with their only series wins in ODIs coming against Windies, Ireland and a tri-Series involving Windies and Zimbabwe. They lost home series' to Australia, Pakistan and now, Zimbabwe and away series' to New Zealand, England and South Africa. Their win/loss ratio of 0.666 during this period is worse than Bangladesh and Afghanistan and only slightly better than the Windies.
That Sri Lanka is on the decline is of little doubt. But do they have it in them to revive themselves?
Young guns have failed to marry consistency
If Sri Lanka has anything to be relieved about, it is that they have a young group of players who have immense potential. The likes of Kusal Mendis, Niroshan Dickwella and Asela Gunaratne have showcased their talents in the big stage many times now.
Mendis is an unassuming, free-flowing batsman who has the potential to be a world-class batsman. He is authoritative on his day, and can tear apart any attack. Dickwella is the aggressor at the top alongside Danushka Gunathilaka, another player who has recently emerged. Talents apart, the three have failed to grab games by the scruff of the neck on a consistent basis, hurting Sri Lanka's batting on quite a few occasions.
Gunaratne is the pick of the lot. With a style of batting eerily similar to his skipper, Angelo Matthews, Gunaratne has been a terrific finisher of sorts for this Lankan line-up. Quite often he has stood by himself and waged a lonely war after his partners had betrayed him. On him rests a lot of Sri Lanka's hopes and the indications are that he is a man for all situations.
The bowling armoury isn't empty either, with chinaman Lakshan Sandakan troubling some of the best in the business in the Champions Trophy. Dushmantha Chameera, Lahiru Madushanka, Wanidu Hasaranga and Dasun Shanaka have looked the part in recent months, but none of them have put forward consistent performances for the team. With Malinga and Kulasekara on the wane, Sri Lanka are short on the bowling front.
There is no shortage of talent in the country, but grooming it is something they have failed at of late. The likes of Mendis, Shanaka and Gunaratne are flamboyant cricketers who can turn into world-class players, given the right guidance and mentorship. They need a leader, a truly captivating captain to inspire them, something which Angelo Matthews and the stand-in skipper, Upul Tharanga haven't quite been able to do. Matthews is the senior player in the side and has enough experience up his sleeve to influence a generation of cricketers. So far he hasn't succeeded and Sri Lanka has paid the price, a rather hefty one.