There were muted celebrations in Cardiff on Tuesday after Sri Lanka collected their first points in the World Cup with a 34 run win over Afghanistan. The reason being the players are aware that this win is nothing to crow about after a brainless batting performance. In the end, they snatched victory from the jaws of defeat thanks to their seam bowlers, who defended 187 admirably.
You thought under overcast conditions, with a nice grass cover, that the batters would struggle against the seam. But they countered seam with minimum fuss and succumbed to the spin or lack of it of Mohammad Nabi.
Isn’t it outrageous that an Asian team succumbs to spin in England? Spin used to be the least of Sri Lanka’s problems. Possessing batsmen with silky wrists and light feet, the likes of Aravinda de Silva, Mahela Jayawardene and Roy Dias before them treated spinners like Abdul Qadir, Anil Kumble and Shane Warne with disdain. But over the years, Sri Lankans have stagnated while other teams have added new dimensions to the game bringing aspects like switch hit, reverse sweep, paddle sweep and many others as countermeasures to spin.
Sri Lankans batsmen have become conventional, trying to stick to the MCC coaching manual while the English players themselves have a borrowed a leaf out of the sub-continent book. If you just push and prod against modern-day spin, you become a sitting duck. That was what happened in Cardiff.
Here’s more proof. Sri Lanka met South Africa in the quarter-final of the previous World Cup. Now you don’t have to reiterate, but South Africa and World Cup knockouts are a mismatch. However, in this instance, it was the Sri Lankans who crumbled. Not against the brutal pace of Dale Steyn or Morne Morkel but against spin. Yes, spin. And they even conceded a hat-trick! Must be to Imran Tahir? Nope. To JP Duminy.
In Cardiff at 146 for one in the 22nd over, Sri Lanka were looking at 350 range. They needed to give their inferior Net Run Rate after a heavy defeat to New Zealand in their opening fixture. But what followed was absolute mayhem as Nabi picked up three wickets in the 22nd over running through the middle order.
When there was smooth running, Mathews was seen cooling off in the dressing room balcony with scarf and earphone on listening to music. Two quick wickets and he found himself rushing into the middle and was dismissed second ball duck, out for a straight ball. Had he been watching television, he would have got some idea that Nabi was not turning but sending the ball straight on.
Not just Mathews but all batters barring Kusal Perera were casual in their approach. An opening wicket stand of 92 runs between Perera and Dimuth Karunaratne laid the foundation for the innings. But they should have carried on. Lapse of concentration resulted in the skipper’s dismissal.
Karunaratne’s role in the side is to bat through the 50 overs. A role similar to that of Marvan Atapattu during the heydays of Sanath Jayasuriya. The batting revolved around the mainstay. But Karunaratne perished attempting to ambitious lofted shot and that started the slide. He wasn’t doing his job. How can he demand others to do theirs?
Take nothing away from the bowlers though. Making the right guess for conditions, Sri Lanka opted for a four-seam attack. With all-rounder Thisara Perera too in the equation there were five seam bowling options.
Nuwan Pradeep was too good and should have been given a couple of more overs to polish the tail and claim a five-wicket haul. He richly deserved it. He would have been only the fourth Sri Lankan to claim a five-wicket haul in World Cups.
Pradeep is the quickest among Sri Lankans. His selection into the squad was a bone of contention. The reason being that he had let the side down having gone down with an injury halfway through a spell on two previous instances. How well he bowled on Tuesday.
A bit flawed with his lengths, Pradeep purchased bounce that put the batters in uncomfortable positions. Some were too early with their shots while the others got their timing wrong as Pradeep mounted the pressure. Some of the deliveries were unplayable as he finished with career-best figures of four for 31.
Nobody seems to be giving Sri Lanka a chance and rightly so but teams will take them seriously if the game goes to the wire simply because of their death bowling skills. There is no better bowler in the world to deliver the last nails on the coffin than Lasith Malinga. He proved it again toying with the Afghanistan tail.
Malinga was nicely setting up the batsman and made a mockery of their skills. His battles with some of the stronger teams will be interesting to watch as we progress along with the tournament. He will be just hoping that the batters will give him something to bowl at.