For three decades Sri Lanka thrilled the world with exciting cricketers, even if some of them were decidedly unorthodox. The likes of Aravinda D’ Silva, Arjuna Ranatunga, Muthiah Muralitharan, Sanath Jayasuriya, Kumara Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Lasith Malinga were household names and their exploits were keenly followed. These cricketers, spread over two generations, won the tiny island nation two World Cups, the 50 over-a-side one and the T20, besides the Asia Cup and other tournaments.
All these, however, are past glory because although the Sri Lankans came to India with the tag of World T20 champions, they looked a beaten side long before they boarded the flight.
The Asia Cup conducted in Bangladesh prior to the ICC World T20 here had already exposed the team’s extreme fragility. What made matters worse was probably the knee-jerk reaction of the country’s sports ministry.
They dismissed the board of selectors and appointed a fresh one just one week before the mega ICC event. The new selectors in turn got rid of the captain, Lasith Malinga, and put Angelo Mathews in charge. A couple of players selected by the previous committee were also axed and replacements identified for the squad just hours before they embarked on the tour.
This was bizarre, to say the least. Not only did Sri Lankan authorities show no confidence in their team, they also destroyed what little belief the team had in itself with these last minute manipulations.
The pity of it all was the team had won the ICC World T20 trophy just two years earlier in Bangladesh where they had beaten India in the final. Yet now, when they should have approached the event brimming in confidence and been the team to beat, their board had already undermined them and cast them to the wolves.
Whatever motivation Malinga had of getting match-fit was also stripped and hence the team effectively had just four experienced and reliable cricketers, the ageing Tillekeratne Dilshan, Dinesh Chandimal, Mathews and veteran Rangana Herath.
In short, world champions Sri Lanka have gone into a freefall and their performance in the tournament only confirmed it.
That they finished fourth in the group just ahead of Afghanistan, and that too because of a marginally better run rate (-0.461 to -0.715) after both ended with 2 points from one win apiece, tells how hard and steep the fall has been.
Their lone win came against Afghanistan when Dilshan (83 n.o. from 53 balls) piloted an excellent chase of 154. It was also the only match that Dilshan really played like the outstanding opener he was. In his prime, with Sangakkara and Jayasuriya around, teams were wary of Dilshan’s ability to pick holes in field placings. But not anymore. Scores of 83 n.o, 12, 2, 36 were simply not enough, particularly as fellow opener Chandimal flopped right through.
Lanka’s best match was against England. They played just four frontline bowlers in that game. It was a risk and they paid for it as England hammered the fifth bowler amalgamation of Thisara Perera, Milinda Siriwardhana and Dasun Shanaka for 51 runs from four overs. England’s late assault helped them to 171, a stiff target no doubt.
It was then that Mathews played a superb captain’s knock and spread panic in the England ranks. His pulverising unbeaten 73 (53 balls) was the highlight of the match. Unfortunately he had no support from the other end and Sri Lanka fell 10 runs short of what might have been a memorable run chase
The matches against West Indies and South Africa were so woefully one-sided that a forlorn Lankan team must have exasperated their fanatical supporters back home.
The takeaways from the tournament are all too few for Sri Lanka. Dilshan, Herath and Malinga are on the last leg of their international careers. The leg spinner Jefferey Vandersay and the fast bowler Dhusmantha Chameera, along with Chandimal, have a long career to look forward to. But most of the others are just marking time till some fresh talent comes along. And for Sri Lankan cricket to get back on its feet and once again become a force, it needs fresh, young talents real soon.