Imagine being Sri Lanka. You win a memorable Test series against Pakistan at their own, albeit adopted, backyard, but to your horror, that tour is sandwiched between two demanding assignments against India — the first of which has ended in mortification. But you still remain confident, courtesy recent success and you arrive in the Indian shores with a positive mindset. Thanks to the rich history and the legacy of your past teams, you also talk about winning your first Test in India and possibly the series. It all seems frivolous until the start of Kolkata Test but then you turn your words into action.
You control more sessions of the first Test than India before getting dismantled in the dying moments of the game. The promising performance fosters the belief that you are learning from the past. However, it instantly gets crushed by the cold-blooded Indian batsmen, who slam four centuries, including a double century by their skipper to hand you your biggest mauling and push you back to square one.
Appointment of a new captain presents many new opportunities, and promises a change. The team philosophy is amended, and the past blemishes are forgotten or looked up to in a fresh perspective. In short, there is a ray of hope. But not for Chandimal’s Sri Lanka.
“I am really disappointed as captain. We talk a lot of these things at team meetings and stuff. But when we go out to the middle, we fail to execute them. We have experience and there are some good young players, but we fail to get into good form,” Chandimal told Cricbuzz in the aftermath of an ‘embarrassing’ drubbing.
Asked about their plan on day four, the Lankan skipper revealed that they wanted to push the Indian bowlers to third spells. Their logic was the workload would get the better of India and they would miss the fifth bowler. However, their ‘execution was horrendous.’
When going through transition, it is imperative to identify a few players and stick with them. Trusting a core of players, backing them and safeguarding them during tough situations is what converts a young talented player into a mature and responsible performer. But Sri Lanka have done the opposite in 2017, one of the worst years in their cricket history.
In a year, where Test wins have been hard to come by, Sri Lanka have played 22 different players; the most by any team. Among those was a 30-year-old domestic veteran Malinda Pushpakumara, who was given the sack after a couple of poor outings. Lakshan Sandakan, a promising wrist-spinner, who played a crucial role in Sri Lanka’s emphatic whitewash over Australia, has played only four Tests since then.
Instead Dilruwan Perera, 35, was picked to play both the Tests as the second spinner. These decisions have been taken despite the knowledge that Rangana Herath, Sri Lanka’s best match-winner in recent times, will hang his boots in near future. So why isn’t the island nation mentoring someone remains a mystery.
Kusal Mendis, tipped as the future of Sri Lankan batting, was unceremoniously snubbed for the India tour to preserve his confidence. The selectors urged him to play domestic cricket. But if common sense prevailed, it would’ve been easy to realise how dropping him must have hampered his confidence further.
If one still makes sense with the decision to drop Mendis, it is painstakingly tough to ignore the statistics of his replacement, Lahiru Thirimanne. Batting one down, Thirimanne's average after 29 Tests is 23.06. Compare that to India’s No three Cheteshwar Pujara, and the difference is almost 30 runs. Heck even the Indian lower middle-order — Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Wriddhiman Saha — boast of better averages. The rationale behind selection process is clearly muddled.
Reflecting on the Nagpur Test, a livid Nic Pothas remarked, "It's embarrassing, players should be embarrassed in their own performances. Practising in the nets means nothing if you do not go out and put runs on the board. As a player your currency is runs, wickets and catches. You can do all you like but if you are not producing them, obviously there will be repercussions. That's the world of professional sport.”
However, he refused to believe that back-to-back series against India, the number one ranked Test side, were too severe for a young Sri Lankan unit. He instead suggested that it was allowing him to identify strong characters for the future.
“Personally as a coach I find it hugely exciting, I've learnt a lot in the last series and in the short time we have been here, and continue to learn more,” he added.
Herein lies the next concern for Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka have been, for the past few weeks or so, trying to rope in Chandika Hathurusingha for the position of head coach. It could be as early as the limited-overs leg in December that he takes charge. Hathurusingha’s appointment would essentially mean that Sri Lanka would restart the process of identifying the correct players. He would naturally invest in the cricketers he deems fit, so the groundwork which Pothas has been laying since the last few months would potentially be wastefully discarded.
Apart from the selection headaches and the saga surrounding the coach, the domestic structure of the nation is suffering. Sri Lanka are reputed for their prominent and well-established school cricket, but the youngsters’ growth is constrained when they take the next step. Highlighted several times over the course of last few months by many current as well as former players, the difference in quality between Sri Lanka’s domestic cricket and international cricket is vast. So the reparation work needs to start at home.
Many teams have gone through the throes of transition. India themselves had experienced it after winning the 2011 World Cup. But, it is important to learn from them. At the moment, as Sri Lanka keep repeating their mistakes, ignoring the issues, and keep shuffling their support staff, it must be asked: Are Sri Lanka really learning from their mistakes?
Imagine being a side, whose players show next to no temperament when survival is the need of the hour. Imagine having a senior batsman at number four trying to play an aerial shot with two days of cricket left. Imagine the plight of your captain, Chandimal, who is waging a lone battle, while his teammates make a mockery of themselves by bettering each other at playing reckless shots. Imagine how low the self-belief of your leader would be when words like embarrassing, humiliating become common in press conferences to describe your performance. Imagine seeing new faces every second series. Imagine having a new coach every third month. Imagine the trepidation when you jump from domestic cricket to international cricket only to discover the difference in standards at each level. Imagine how rapidly you have fallen and how long is it going to take to revitalise.
Imagine being Sri Lanka!