That Sri Lanka began the ODI series with nothing but hope is clear. A series defeat against Zimbabwe was followed by a thrashing at the hands of India — first in Tests and then the 50-over format. Such has been the impact of the retirements of a few stalwarts, that the island nation has had to rely on the younger generation for an inspirational performance which would give them confidence. But as the end of the tour nears, with no sign of improvement in sight, the hosts could also lose the services of their most promising youngster, Kusal Mendis.
"We had a chat after the last game. He (Kusal Mendis) is still 22. We feel that he is mentally drained and it is nothing to do with any technical things. We will see what the management comes up with. It is better to give him a break before the next tour rather than keep playing him throughout," Sri Lanka's batting coach Avishka Gunawardene was quoted as saying ahead of the 5th and the final ODI.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Everything that could possibly go wrong for Sri Lanka has. They have had injuries, then there were replacements. It was almost comical when the replacements also got injured. If one counts the Test series, Sri Lanka have had four captains; it is something that perfectly encapsulates the current scenario of Sri Lankan cricket.
Test skipper Dinesh Chandimal couldn't find a place in the ODI squad initially before being selected after ODI captain Upul Tharanga was suspended for slow over rate. But the return didn't last long as Chandimal fractured his thumb. Then Chamara Kapugedera was appointed as the stand-in captain for the third ODI. It is not a bad time to recollect that Kapugedera's average was just 21.22 before the third fixture, but somehow he found himself not only playing his 101th ODI but also captaining it. Lasith Malinga, who led Sri Lanka in the fourth match which resulted in a 168-run defeat, has started pondering over his retirement days after he suggested of continuing till 2023. And amidst all of this came the resignation of the Sanath Jayasuriya-led selection panel. Ah, the state of Sri Lanka cricket!
Frankly, the Lions’ concerns are far greater than avoiding a whitewash. But they would be able to address those only after facing a ruthless Indian team in the remaining two matches of the tour.
So, can the hosts fight back? The only match in which they competed was the 2nd ODI, when Akila Dananjaya ran riot, but they couldn’t sustain it. Their hopes were pinned on Dananjaya after the memorable partnership between MS Dhoni and Bhuvneshwar Kumar. However, his mystery didn’t trouble the Indian batsmen as much as Ajantha Mendis’. Vishwa Fernando was another pacer who showed promise but, perhaps feeling the pressure, didn’t deliver.
Mendis has had a forgettable series while Niroshan Dickwella has lacked consistency. The silver lining for Sri Lanka can be Angelo Mathews’ form. But he will need support from his teammates if the home side are to win the Colombo fixture to help them pile more pressure on the Windies — who will have to win all their upcoming matches against Ireland and England if Tharanga's team win on Sunday — in the race for direct qualification for the 2019 World Cup.
In contrast to the hosts, Virat Kohli's men have thoroughly enjoyed the last few weeks. Rohit Sharma's poor run in the island nation has come to an end in style — with consecutive centuries. Dhoni has rediscovered his mojo through a tweak in his technique and change of pads. Kohli has continued doing what he usually does. Jasprit Bumrah has led the bowling department in the absence of seniors and is leading the bowling charts. The slow bowlers have not been challenged much in the middle overs but Kuldeep Yadav, Axar Patel and Yuzvendra Chahal have done whatever has been asked of them. Even Shardul Thakur, who made his international debut in the previous encounter, impressed with his pace, and had a wicket to go with it.
The only headache Kohli might have had heading into the fifth match would have been regarding Ajinkya Rahane's inclusion in the playing eleven. That hassle must have been solved after it was learnt that Shikhar Dhawan is set to leave for home to attend to his ailing mother. BCCI's decision to not name any replacement has thrown open the door for Rahane, who starred in India's last ODI assignment in the Caribbean. While the visitors must be happy to tick all the boxes, they would want KL Rahul to get amongst the runs.
It would be nothing short of a miracle if Sri Lanka manage to avert a whitewash. But as they say, stranger things have happened in cricket.
Sri Lanka's probable XI: Niroshan Dickwella, Dilshan Munaweera, Lahiru Thirimanne, Upul Tharanga, Angelo Mathews, Kusal Mendis, Milinda Siriwardana, Akila Dananjaya, Dushmantha Chameera, Vishwa Fernando, Lasith Malinga
India probable XI: Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, KL Rahul, Manish Pandey, MS Dhoni (wk), Hardik Pandya, Axar Patel, Kuldeep Yadav, Shardul Thakur, Jasprit Bumrah