On paper, having won five Asia Cup titles previously, Sri Lanka are strong contenders to win the 14th edition of the regional tournament. But realistically, qualifying for the Super Four stage itself has become a challenge for the former World Champions. Head Coach Chandika Hathurusingha is aware of what to expect in UAE later this week. Sri Lanka will take on Bangladesh in the curtain-raiser of the six-nation competition in Dubai on Saturday.
“Both teams in our opening round are like banana skins you see. On their days they can upset any team. They have match winners and they can surprise you. Bangladesh have been playing good cricket and they don’t have that fear factor anymore. We have to make sure that their impact players are not having a good day,” Hathurusingha told Firstpost in an interview.
Two days after the Bangladesh clash, Sri Lanka will take on Afghanistan in Abu Dhabi. “Their strength is their bowling and if the conditions suit their bowlers, they can be handful.”
Young spinner Akila Dananjaya, with bit of mystery mixing up his off-breaks, leg-spin, googlies and doosras, has cleverly emerged as Sri Lanka’s premier bowler. He has withdrawn from the opening two games to be with his wife for the birth of the couple’s first child.
“Obviously not having Akila is going to be a big loss for us. The last game he played for us, he took six wickets. He won that game on his own. It is a big challenge to replace him. We need to alter our gameplan. We need to understand what the replacement can offer.”
Sri Lanka are currently ranked eighth in the world and had a poor 2017 where they won only five of their 29 ODIs. That included three 5-0 whitewashes at the hands of South Africa, India and Pakistan. This year has been slightly better with the team having won five of their ten games, but Hathurusingha is aware that the team has a long way to go.
“After we lost the first two games to South Africa last month in Dambulla, we had a team meeting. Since 2017, we had played 36 ODIs and won only eight games and only on three occasions we had scored in excess of 280. We realised that we had to change our approach. Unfortunately, Sri Lankan cricket had not gone deep into some of the changes in the game. It was very surprising. There were two new balls and three types of powerplays and we had not adjusted.”
“Soon after that our boys got into a groove. I was a bit surprised because when you make those drastic changes, it will take some time to adapt, but we started making an impact immediately.”
In a bid to bring the best out of the team, Hathurusingha brought in former captain Kumar Sangakkara to address the Sri Lankan team during their preparations ahead of the Asia Cup.
“If I do not bring in someone like Sanga, I am a fool,” Hathurusingha said.
“What we did with Sanga was to ask him questions. We specifically asked about his preparation. That was one of the things that I saw in Sanga as a player. His preparation is very methodical, specific, unique and very detailed. For someone to have 11 double hundreds, he must be thinking something different from others. He is second only to Bradman.”
Hathurusingha highlighted that Upul Tharanga will be the key for Sri Lanka. The opening batsman was one of the three players to score more than 1000 runs in 2017 in ODIs along with Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma. Tharanga captained Colombo to victory in the recent SLC T20 League where he amassed over 400 runs at an average of 103, including two unbeaten hundreds.
“I know Upul since 2007 and during the recent South Africa series, I told him that this was the best I had seen him bat in the nets. The big runs didn’t come during the South Africa series but he had the momentum during the domestic tournament. He already has 15 ODI hundreds and has played in three World Cups, so he is a key man for us.”
Not many good things can be said of Tharanga’s fielding though as he is one of the slowest fielders. Sri Lanka are already carrying too many liabilities on the field with Dilruwan Perera, Lasith Malinga, Kusal Janith Perera and Angelo Mathews being not the most athletic.
“You are right to a certain extent and we actually thought about it. There is a reason why they are in the squad. Dilruwan is in there because of Akila's situation. We need an off-spinner, a genuine bowler who could play against a certain opposition. We know he is limited on the field. But he is experienced and his other skills we value those more than his deficits. Lasith is not a bad fielder at certain places. His hands are good. He is ageing. But he is better fielder than what you all have seen in the past.”
Hathurusingha says that he will be content if the team makes it to the final and outlines Pakistan as favourites in the absence of Indian skipper Virat Kohli.
“Pakistan are favourites for me. Pakistan are the Champions Trophy winners and they have an excellent record in UAE. India are a close second because Virat Kohli is not there,” opined Hathurusingha.
“It is going to be a tough competition. India are word’s second ranked team and defending champions. Pakistan have won the Champions Trophy. The Asian teams are doing well and we are definitely the underdogs. I would be happy with the team making it to the final. That is my goal,” concluded Hathurusingha.