You would have expected for Sri Lanka to build on the momentum they received after the Test series win in South Africa, but during the one-day leg, they totally blew it. Not even once Sri Lankan batsmen were able to utilize their quota of 50 overs and after five games a highest total of 231 tells you the story — Sri Lanka have little hope to turn things around during the World Cup.
The South Africa tour is their last campaign before the World Cup squad is announced and the Proteas despite not fielding their best eleven taught the tourists some bitter lessons. The Sri Lankans at times looked clueless and jaded. They were given a hiding and by the time they reached Cape Town to avoid a 5-0 humiliation, they had run out of ideas.
The writing has been on the wall for them. They paid the price for not persevering with the policy decisions they had taken. Last November, Sri Lanka finally settled for a blueprint as their foundation for ODI cricket. They had realised that there was a problem of not utilizing the 50 overs and Dinesh Chandimal was asked to bat at three. His role was to play the role of the anchor.
A change of selection panel saw Chandimal being axed and the problems of old times resurfaced. There was no continuity. However, it was not the only policy that Sri Lanka had abandoned. It was decided that Dasun Shanaka, with his ability to clear the boundary ropes, will play as a specialist batsman. He was to occupy number five slot. That idea too was abandoned.
They also took the tough call of not including Upul Tharanga in their World Cup plans in November, but with a new set of selectors coming in, he found a way back into the squad. However, his performances in South Africa reiterated the fact that his best days are behind him.
Lastih Malinga, who was recently given the captaincy in the limited overs cricket, proved during the series that he is unable to bring the team together. It was suspected when he was made the captain and the selectors were warned.
Sri Lanka need a captain who can bring Dinesh Chandimal, Angelo Mathews and Thisara Perera together. But if the captain is barely exchanging words with his three senior most players, a team can make little progress. Chandimal and Mathews were not there in South Africa, but it was clear that divisions run deeper than the top players.
Leave alone playing to win, the Sri Lankans weren't even bothered to stake claim for World Cup spots. In the five ODIs, the whole team shockingly managed just three half-centuries. One of them was scored by a tail-ender, Isuru Udana and Kusal Mendis accounted for the other two. The rest simply didn't care. Mendis will have to sort out his running between the wickets though. He was dismissed twice in that fashion in the series.
There were no issues with the wickets. These were proper batting surfaces prepared to produce a run-fest. Still, the Sri Lankans failed to turn up.
These five ODIs should have been used as a preparation for World Cup. But the Sri Lankans were once again busy in doing experimentation. But, it wasn't the time for such experiments. Experiments were done before and it was time to persevere with players and plans they already had.
At the start of the series, Ashantha De Mel, the chairman of selectors spoke about how ODI cricket has changed and how in the modern day 320 is the new safe score. He was probably right about the changes in ODI cricket but Sri Lanka at the moment doesn't have quality batsmen who are capable of scoring more than run-a-ball. Maybe the skill is there but the domestic cricket structure does not prepare players for these challenges.
Sri Lanka's domestic structure is diluted with 23 teams competing in first-class cricket and often batsmen are up against poor quality attacks. The struggle in international cricket, hence, is quite not so surprising. De Mel's thinking is hence flawed. What he should instead look at is how his team can score 280 consistently and then fix the bowling to restrict the opposition.
But Sri Lankan cricket is messed up badly. For any institution to move forward there has to be dialogue between the key stakeholders. There has been absolutely no dialogue between head coach Chandika Hathurusingha and chairman of selectors De Mel and you cannot expect progress under such circumstances.
The Sri Lankan batsmen were expected to strrugle against the express pace of Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi. But strangely, it was leg-spin that troubled them more rather than the pacers.
Imran Tahir finished the series with nine wickets in four games and every time he came onto bowl, he resulted for a breakthrough — either he dismissed a batsman or forced a run-out as batsmen panicked.
It's not a case of batsmen's lack of skill in playing leg-spin. Back home they will find hundreds of Tahirs and the likes of Mendis, Thisara Perera and Niroshan Dickwella are capable of taking leg-spin apart. But the problem is, the moment South Africa attack by placing a couple of close-in fielders, the batsmen panic and succumb to pressure. The confidence levels are so low at the moment.
Sri Lanka are aware that they have problems to fix. There are now talks emerging that ODI captaincy could be handed over back to Angelo Mathews or to Test skipper Dimuth Karunaratne. The latter has not played an ODI for ages, however, he has been in good form in domestic 50-over cricket competitions. There's an inter-provincial one-day tournament coming up in a few days time that should help selectors find the combination for the World Cup. It's time for them to fix the problems fast.