The Sri Lankan cricket squad was one of the first teams to reach England for the ICC Cricket World Cup. They arrived in England on 7 May and are training at a private facility in London — Merchant Taylor’s School. Sri Lanka Cricket hopes that arriving three weeks prior to the competition will enable players to acclimatise to the conditions in England. However, deep in-fighting and divisions within the squad and the team management could spell disaster for the former champions and derail their campaign.
Chairman of Selectors Ashantha De Mel and Head Coach Chandika Hathurusingha are at dagger’s drawn; not seeing eye to eye and having contrasting views on the way forward for the team. During De Mel's first media interaction, six months ago, after being named Chairman of Selectors, he expressed his reservations on captain Dinesh Chandimal. He said that the captain depended too heavily on the Head Coach and Chandimal was replaced as captain in the shorter format of the game with Lasith Malinga taking over.
Six weeks later, Chandimal not only lost the Test captaincy but was axed from the team. Dimuth Karunaratne was named new Test captain.
With Malinga unable to turn the fortunes of the team in white ball cricket, he was replaced ahead of the World Cup with Karunaratne taking over as the captain of the ODI side too.
Chandimal’s removal was purely to weaken Hathurusingha’s power base but in the end, Sri Lanka ended up with a situation where they didn’t have a leader to take the team forward and had to bring Karunaratne, who had not played an ODI for more than four years.
He is not alone. Jeewan Mendis, another player who featured in an ODI more than four years ago also finds himself back in the squad for the World Cup.
The Sri Lankan World Cup squad has three other players who have not played an ODI in the last 18 months. None of them were in Hathurusingha’s plans for England 2019.
As De Mel tried to consolidate his power base, the players who were loyal to Hathurusingha were sidelined with Niroshan Dickwella and Dasun Shanaka being the other high-profile casualties alongside skipper Chandimal.
Dickwella has been Sri Lanka's best find in the last three years. Although his batting has been inconsistent, he has rarely faulted as a wicketkeeper. Then, not many 25-year-olds have got the guts to tell Virat Kohli to get lost.
After the Kolkata confrontation between the two in November 2017, Kohli said, "I like the character I see in Dickwella. I liked that competitiveness on the field. He is someone who takes a lot of pride in his cricket. I am impressed with what I have seen so far of him. He has got great ability to do something very special for Sri Lankan cricket."
Dickwella's axing has not gone well with most Sri Lankans with former captains Aravinda de Silva and Kumar Sangakkara voicing their disapproval.
Dasun Shanaka was identified to bat at number five by Hathurusingha in shorter formats and even he finds himself in the doldrums.
The selectors have chosen Kusal Janith Perera to do the wicketkeeping duties and he isn't the tidiest wicketkeeper in the country with Dickwella and Chandimal being the top choices. Kusal Mendis, who has rarely kept wickets for the Sri Lankan side is the backup wicketkeeper.
De Mel and Hathurusingha need to bury the hatchet and fix the problems. If they keep blaming each other for the mess, both are at danger of losing their jobs. SLC has made De Mel the Team Manager for the World Cup hoping that it will help him and Hathurusingha to gel and sort out their differences. Only time will tell whether it will happen or not.
Sri Lankan cricket has hit an all-time low. The team's current ODI ranking of ninth is their lowest in the history and people are losing patience.
All hope is not lost for Sri Lanka though. They are buoyed by the fact that their best match-winner Angelo Mathews is making a comeback from a hamstring injury that kept him out of the tours of South Africa and Australia. Mathews will not be bowling during the World Cup but he adds muscle to a fragile middle-order that has often failed to utilise the quota of 50 overs.
Along with him, the Sri Lankans will be looking up to young Kusal Mendis for momentum. Sri Lankan fans have seen Mendis’ match-winning abilities particularly during the recent tour of South Africa where he put Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada to the sword as the tourists completed an emphatic series win. The world is yet to take note of his batting prowess. He is only 24 and even the great De Silva or Sangakkara didn’t have his numbers when they were 24.
In bowling, Lasith Malinga will be their key. The 35-year-old with 322 ODI scalps is the highest wicket-taker among current players and no active bowler has taken more wickets than him (43) in World Cups. This is his fourth World Cup and he produced a hat-trick each in the 2007 and 2011 competitions, the only bowler to take two hat-tricks in World Cups.
The Sri Lankans are carrying three spinning all-rounders to the World Cup despite having quite a few spinning options in the squad. All three – Milinda Siriwardene, Jeffrey Vandersay and Jeewan Mendis have not featured in an ODI since October 2017. This is where a semaer all-rounder in the form of Dasun Shanaka would have come in handy.
Despite being one-time champions and two-time finalists, Sri Lanka have an awful record in World Cups in England. In the four World Cups that England has hosted, Sri Lanka have never reached the second round. Of the 17 World Cup games they have played in England, they have won only four. Two of those World Cups were before they had gained Test status but even when they were defending champions in 1999, they didn't cover themselves in glory managing just two wins in five games; that too against lowly Kenya and Zimbabwe.
The odds are against Sri Lanka and they will have to defy logic to reach the semis. They are still hoping that one or two spectacular individual performances will take them over the line. That is wishful thinking. As the saying goes — if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.