Ninth ranked Sri Lanka arrived for the ICC Cricket World Cup with little hope to make it to the semi-finals. They weren't even given a chance to beat Afghanistan! The reason being that they had lost to Afghanistan in their last meeting — in the Asia Cup in United Arab Emirates and there were other issues deeply affecting the team. But the Sri Lankans did what they usually do in World Cups — to play above expectations.
To end the competition ranked sixth above teams like South Africa and West Indies, who were possible semi-finalists, is a commendable achievement. On return back to the nation, the team could say they would have possibly given a shot at the semi-finals if their games against Pakistan and Bangladesh had not got washed out. And that will be a fair point.
The highlight in the competition for Sri Lanka was their win over England. The hosts were ranked number one and Sri Lanka defended a below par total with real purpose. Lasith Malinga is the master of defending low scores. After Angelo Mathews gave him something to bowl at, he finished with four wickets to throw the tournament wide open. He was denied a five-wicket haul with Kusal Mendis dropping a catch. But what's more important is that Sri Lanka defended 232.
Other bowlers like off-spinner Dhananjaya de Silva and left-arm seamer Isuru Udana had a decent tournament. The latter was Sri Lanka's best fielder in the competition; his two direct-hits against Australia off his own bowling nothing short of being sensational.
But overall, the bowling lacked firepower to bowl opposing sides out or to restrict free-scoring batsmen. Kasun Rajitha, who came in as a late replacement for chickenpox-infected Nuwan Pradeep, was the only Sri Lankan bowler to clock 140kmph consistently. Other leading contenders had at least two bowlers, who bowled regularly in that range. Not that you don't have any bowlers who clock 140kmph in Colombo. The likes of Lahiru Kumara, Dushmantha Chameera and Shehan Madushanka belong to that category. But they were left at home. What's more painful is that all these guys had been in Sri Lanka's plans leading up to the World Cup.
Sri Lanka have depended heavily on mystery spinners. Akila Dananjaya was their main spinner leading up to the World Cup but for some strange reason he was left at home too. After Malinga's early burst, the rest of the bowling lacked teeth to contain batsmen. They were truly exposed by India, who chased down a target of 265 with seven wickets in hand and more than six overs to spare. So did Australia and others. The list is endless.
Mathews scored his maiden hundred in World Cups in the dead rubber against India. But when it mattered — the must-win clash against South Africa — he failed to fire. So did the other middle order-batsmen. A shaky middle-order was Sri Lanka's biggest problem in the competition.
Not just with South Africa, it happened against Afghanistan, New Zealand and Australia. A disciplined effort by the middle-order could have taken Sri Lanka over the line in some of those contests.
Kusal Mendis was the biggest disappointment. After his exploits in South Africa against Kagiso Rabada and Dale Steyn that helped Sri Lanka clinch a historic Test series win, there was belief that he had matured enough and could play match-wining knocks. He got starts in several games but threw it away after getting set. An aggregate of 143 runs at 20 don't do justice for his ability.
Avishka Fernando was the find of the World Cup. He became the third-youngest player to score a World Cup hundred. With a liking to go after the bowling from the word go, you will hear his name in times to come more often. His effort is impressive when you consider that Aravinda de Silva was 30 when he made his first World Cup hundred and Sanath Jayasuriya was 33. Kumar Sangakkara was 34. This kid is only 21.
It's the first time Sri Lanka have not made it to the second round since 1999. But with expectations being quite low back home, there will be no major casualties following this campaign. Already those who matter are satisfied with the team faring reasonably well. Fair enough. But the end doesn't justify the means.
Spare a thought to guys like Niroshan Dickwella, Sri Lanka's best find in the last three years. He was elevated as vice-captain for the last tour before the World Cup and then was dumped altogether. The same fate befell Dinesh Chandimal, the man who was groomed to take the team to the World Cup.
Those who were selected instead like Jeevan Mendis, Milinda Siriwardene, Lahiru Thirimanne and Jeffrey Vandersay were a huge disappointment. They were exposed well and truly. All four had not featured in an ODI for more than 18 months before their World Cup selection. Mendis had not played an ODI for more than four years. The selectors called Mendis a three dimensional player. His performances in the tournament — 19 runs and no wickets — proved that he is a bits and pieces cricketer.