World T20 champions Sri Lanka are in a pickle. That’s the short verdict after their second successive defeat in three Asia Cup matches. The good news is that they are still in the race for a spot in the final and a late flourish might well see them advance to the title clash, other things being equal.
The Lankans were for long a much-feared side in the shortest format of the game. They had brilliant batsmen, an outstanding strike bowler and a very effective mix of good limited-overs bowlers who were backed by sharp fielding. Additionally, many of their players had their T20 skills sharpened by years of experience in the competitive world of IPL cricket.
However, the retirement of their star batsmen Kumara Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena, the stuttering batting of ageing star Tillakaratne Dilshan, the inconsistency of Angelo Mathews and the dodgy fitness of pace ace Lasith Malinga has left them looking a forlorn side.
But make no mistake. They are still a pretty cohesive unit and the fact that they could run a well-oiled, all round team like India as close as they did speaks volumes for their tenacity.
When Lanka look back at this Asia Cup tournament they would identify the unexpected loss to Bangladesh in their second match as their defining moment. The hosts seemed better prepared to bat on their juicy home turf and this made all the difference. Additionally, the absence of Malinga in two crucial encounters also substantially lowered their bowling potency, especially on surfaces which are so decidedly seamer-friendly.
Sri Lanka, to regroup, would do well to work around Malinga’s probable absence in the next match too. Moping about losses to Bangladesh and India would hardly serve their cause. Instead they need to get better organised for the crucial match against Pakistan.
For that to happen, they need the brightest spark in their present batting line-up, Dinesh Chandimal, to bat through the first 15 overs. His early dismissal against India was a huge blow and they never really recovered from it.
The other opener, Dilshan, seems well past his prime. If he somehow manages to roll back the years and come up with one significant knock in this tournament the World T20 champions’ cause would be excellently served.
The Lankans could also have had a big match-winner in Thisara Perrera. But teams around the world have sussed him out. His weakness against short-pitched bowling has been so thoroughly exploited that his team now bats him as low as number 8 or 9. He could have been their big hitter up the order, but is now around more for his military medium bowling and fielding rather than his stroke-play.
Therefore, under the circumstances, it is imperative for the Lankans to somehow inspire runs from their top order where Chandimal simply has to hold the innings together and coax other batsmen, including Dilshan, Chamara Kapudegera, Shehan Jayasuriya and Mathews to chip in usefully.
And that really could be the key to their problems, for without ample runs on the board their bowling attack is being thwarted time and again.
The match against India was a case in point. Asked to defend a paltry 138 on a pitch that looked firmer and truer than in earlier matches, the wily medium pacer Ruwan Kalsekara got rid of both the Indian openers cheaply. But two small but useful partnerships anchored by champion batsman Virat Kohli sealed the Lankans’ fate. Still their bowlers, despite the absence of Malinga, looked competitive till the end which came with a mere four balls remaining.
Left-arm spinner Rangana Herath, usually a miserly bowler, got the long handle treatment from Yuvraj Singh at a crucial stage in the match. On the other hand, the medium pacers, Mathews, Kulasekara, Perera and Dushmantha Chameera, all bowled well.
The tall, lanky Chameera, Lanka’s fastest bowler, reminds one of former West Indies fast bowling great Winston Davis. He didn’t pick up wickets against India as he struggled to stick to a line because of the constant rotation of strike between left hander-right hander combinations of Suresh Raina, Kohli and Yuvraj. But Chameera could be a handful in the not-too-distant future.
Lanka’s last match in the league phase would be against Pakistan on Friday. Their bowlers, although handicapped by the continued absence of Malinga, still look the part. The batting is another matter altogether. Hopefully they will get their act together not just for the sake of the Asia Cup but also for the tougher battles awaiting them in India at the World T20.