Sri Lanka have a reputation to lose. The last time the ICC World T20 Championship was staged, they won the title almost in a canter, defeating India in the final. Just two years down the road, the defending champions have gone into a free-fall and are currently eighth in the ICC T20 ranking, one place ahead of Afghanistan. How the mighty have fallen!
The retirement of two of their finest cricketers, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayewardene, and the continued indifferent form of ageing batting star Tillakaratne Dilshan has considerably eroded Lanka’s batting strength.
It is in this context that the heat and passion of the T20 Asia Cup in Bangladesh last fortnight provided the Lankans the ideal opportunity to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of their transitional team. The resultant assessment would have hardly pleased them and thus their sports minister cracked the whip by sacking the selection committee last week.
The new committee, headed by former batting legend Aravinda de Silva, was packed with other greats such as Sangakkara and Romesh Kaluwitharana, among others. They took key decisions including relieving ace fast bowler Lasith Malinga of captaincy duties. They ostensibly wanted to get the old warhorse to focus on getting himself fit rather than bother about the nitty-gritties of leading a struggling team. That chore was left to the experienced all rounder, Angelo Mathews.
The new selection panel also sacked two cricketers — leg-spinner Jeffrey Vandersay and the inexperienced 22-year-old batsman, Niroshan Dickwella. In their place they brought in seasoned fast medium bowler Suranga Lakmal and the in-form top order batsman, Lahiru Thirimanne.
The left-handed Thirimanne, 26, regarded highly by Aravinda, has been in excellent form in Sri Lanka’s domestic cricket with scores of 153, 68 and 135 over the past month. He made an instant impression, and difference to the Lankan top order in the two T20 warm-up games with scores of 41 and 45 against New Zealand and Pakistan, respectively.
Lakmal has been brought in as a cover for the injury-prone Malinga and his experience may stand the team in good stead in tough situations.
However the key to Sri Lanka’s success will continue to be Malinga. The recurring knee injury has left him picking and choosing matches. However, when on song, the medium-pacer can change the complexion of the game in one short burst. It will be interesting to see how the Lankans nurture this genuine match-winner through this tough tournament.
Do they, for instance, play him in their opener against lowly Afghanistan on Thursday? Or preserve him for the tougher battles later against the West Indies, England and South Africa? The Malinga advantage for his team is that opposing batsmen treat his bowling with care and perish chancing their arm against the other bowlers.
And the others are certainly not cannon fodder. Skipper Mathews, Nuwan Kulasekara, Tissera Pereira and Rangana Herath are all experienced bowlers who will not panic when the batsmen go after them. In the right conditions, left-arm spinner Herath can be a handful.
But the most critical aspect for Sri Lanka would have to be their batting. Unless they put enough runs on the board, they cannot expect their bowling attack to carry the day.
Dinesh Chandimal is their best batsman at the moment and the team will be looking up to him to provide the right platform. If he, Dilshan and Thirimanne, capable batsmen all, can hold the batting together Lanka can be expected to run up challenging totals.
The comforting thought for Sri Lankan cricket is the knowledge that it is not always the better team that wins; rather it is the team that plays better on the day. An explosive innings or a crucial spell of bowling could completely alter the course of the match. And Lanka have the men who can make this happen.
True, this Lankan side may not be as resourceful as the champion team of the past. But they still have the ability to spoil someone else’s party on a given day. And that is what makes them such a dangerous side. Underestimate them to your peril!
Sri Lanka: Lahiru Thirimanne, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Dinesh Chandimal(w), Shehan Jayasuriya, Angelo Mathews(c), Chamara Kapugedera, Milinda Siriwardana, Dasun Shanaka, Thisara Perera, Nuwan Kulasekara, Rangana Herath, Sachithra Senanayake, Dushmantha Chameera, Lasith Malinga, Suranga Lakmal.
17 March: Vs Afghanistan; Eden Gardens
20 March: Vs West Indies; M Chinnaswamy Stadium
26 March: Vs England; Feroz Shah Kotla
28 March: Vs South Africa; Feroz Shah Kotla