Using bits and pieces bowlers to complete the fifth bowler’s quota is a pre-T20 era strategy. Teams like Clive Lloyd’s all-conquering West Indies used it to good effect with Lloyd, Viv Richards and Larry Gomes chipping in to share the fifth bowler’s burden in ODIs.
India and England tried it with mostly disastrous results because their main four bowlers were not as incisive as the West Indies’ four-pronged pace attack.
But the advent of T20 cricket virtually jettisoned the ‘four frontline bowlers only’ concept till Sri Lanka surprisingly revived it for their key ICC World T20 contest against England. And but for some shoddy implementation, they might well have ambushed England in spectacular fashion on Saturday.
To appreciate the concept of five-bowler theory it must be understood that within the limited scope of T20 cricket a batsman may sometimes not get a chance to get down to the crease. But a minimum of five bowlers will mandatorily be called upon to bowl in each and every T20 match.
Thus teams made the five-bowler, six-batsman strategy a normative one. They even put up with a part-time wicket-keeper. However, no team went into a match with only four key bowlers. To do so was to invite disaster.
But Sri Lanka, holders of the World T20 championship, cast popular wisdom to the winds and opted to take on England with just four main bowlers – Angelo Mathews, Rangana Herath, Dushmantha Chameera and Jeffrey Vandersay. The fifth bowler’s burden was taken up by three bits and pieces bowlers: Tisera Perera, Milinda Siriwardhana and Dasun Shanaka.
They chose to fortify their batting line-up instead, confident that with that extra batsman they could chase down any target set by England. They met luck with the toss as this enabled them to play to their strength and chase a target, rather than defend one with just four bowlers.
By the end of the 15th over of England’s innings three of the main bowlers had bowled out their quota of four overs while the fourth, Chameera had sent down two in a score of 99 for 2. After that it was pure mayhem. The last five overs yielded a whopping 72 runs scored at a remarkable average of 14.4 runs per over.
The fifth bowler combination of Perera (2-0-27-0), Siriwardhana (1-0-9-0), Shanaka (1-0-15-0) gave away 51 runs from the four overs to dash all the good work done by the impressive leg spinner Jefferey Vandersay (4-0-26-2), left-arm spinner Herath (4-1-27-1) and medium pacer Mathews (4-0-25-0). Even paceman Chameera, who bowled his first spell economically (2-0-7-0), was blasted at the finish (2-0-29-0).
This four-bowler concept, alien as it is to T20 cricket, was an immense gamble taken by Sri Lanka. So many things could have gone wrong en route. What if they had lost the toss and England had decided to chase? Then the entire plan would have sunk from the start.
Worse, what if skipper Mathews, who suffered a hamstring injury while batting, had been struck by it while bowling? Sri Lanka would have been reduced to just three frontline bowlers!
Under the circumstances they very nearly pulled off an incredible win. They ran England tantalisingly close and finally lost by a mere 10 runs. Had Mathews not been hampered by the injury they might well have edged closer or even won the contest.
The ploy of playing an extra batsman very nearly came off as it allowed Chamera Kapugedara, Mathews and Perera to play with a lot more freedom. And the extra batsman, Shanaka, too almost turned the tide Lanka’s way.
In the end champions Lanka had to bite the dust. All their rearguard action was not enough to send England packing. Worse when they reflect on the pros and cons of their strategy on the day, the extra runs conceded by the absence of a key fifth bowler will always rankle because that was the difference between a victory and the loss.