THE apparent political manoeuvre to allow 41-year-old Sanath Jayasuriya a fifth World Cup appearance proved unfruitful, while the more legitimate claim of fellow veteran, Chaminda Vaas, couldn’t quite prevail over those staked by three younger, and quicker, pacemen – thus, leaving Muttiah Muralitharan the solitary remnant from 1996’s triumphant World Cup outfit.
Fourteen years after 1996, the rejection of the veteran duo and the survival of the world’s most successful bowler, are logical consequences and hence, no reason for evoking any sort of public reaction. Yet last week, the nation perceptibly breathed a huge sigh of relief – all because, of all things, the 15-man squad for next month’s World Cup campaign had no surprises. Not quite: the biggest surprise was, hooray, politicians hadn’t a say in these selections.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s call to choose the best and deserving players, disregarding any extraneous influence, obviously gave the selectors a freehand, and perhaps pre-empted any backdoor inclusions, which they otherwise might’ve been persuaded to allow. Whether the President’s praiseworthy hands-off message to his tribe marks the beginning of the end to political interference in national team selections – only time will tell.
For the time being, though, let’s be thankful that the cricket selectors didn’t have powerful politicians looking over their shoulders whilst performing what was singly their most important task – providing an environment of independence to fill cricket’s 15 most sought-after positions, which, in the first place, was predictable anyway; predictable i.e., until the veteran duo was retained in the list of the final 30 candidates a month or so ago, after their out-of-the-blue inclusions in the initial pool of 50-odd last August.
Predictable though the chosen squad is, the selectors’ decision to omit Suraj Randiv, however, is not beyond debate. After all, the off-spinner is being spoken of as the man most likely to perform the role of the retiring Muralitharan, and justifiably so. He has claimed 14 and 22 wickets from only three Tests and 22 ODIs respectively, since making his international debut only some 12 months ago, at the not too young age of 25. If anything the inclusion of Muralitharan’s successor was imperative, as he needs to acquire quickly a level of experience that is commensurate with his age. And for a quicker blossoming of maturity, a more fertile ground than the World Cup competition is difficult to find.
Sadly, however, the obviousness of Randiv’s inclusion was neutered by realism. Muralitharan, Ajantha Mendis and Rangana Herath were the selectors’ three preferred spinners. Muralitharan, of course, is indispensable for reasons that don’t require any explanation. Mendis’s mysteries might’ve been unraveled by the Indian batsmen only because of his frequent exposure to them: three three-Test series and countless ODIs over the past two years. But his exposure to other international sides has been far less and so is reason enough to assume that he’ll torment those who know less about his wily skills, more batsmen from beyond the sub continent boundaries than those within.
Apart from having to concede to Mendis’s seniority, Randiv’s bag of tricks isn’t as full as the unorthodox finger spinner’s, so, for adding variety to the armoury, the inclusion of Mendis made sense – which put Randiv against Herath in the contest for the final spinner’s slot, only to be again baulked by the need for variety. Herath was always the solitary left-hand spinner in contention and that rarity coupled with his English county cricket experience for Hampshire, won the 32-year-old the selectors’ vote ahead of Randiv.
Some might argue, given that sub continental pitches reserve its fortunes for spinners more than pacemen, trading one of the three chosen ‘quicks’ for Randiv might’ve been a more desirable option. As well, the squad’s all-rounders, Angelo Matthews and Thisara Perera, have both proven to be more than adequate medium pacers, giving a degree of validity to the spinner-for-quick trade-off. Though that option is fine in theory, the practicalities involved in its implementation are difficult. Lasith Malinga, blessed with virtues of deception and raw speed, and Nuwan Kulasekera, by virtue of his accuracy and recent standing as the no.1 bowler in the ODI world ranking, are both irreplaceable.
Dilhara Fernando, the third paceman, might not have the same credentials as Malinga and Kulasekera, but, as pointed out by chief selector Aravinda de Silva, Fernando’s inclusion was necessitated by the need to provide cover should injury strike Malinga, whose durability is suspect anyway. After all, God forbid, a disabled Malinga and a left-at-home Fernando would leave the squad bereft of a genuine speedster – a setback no team would want in the midst of a World Cup campaign.
One other door for Randiv’s inclusion might’ve been to dispense with one of the two Chamaras, both batsmen on the borderline of selections. But given the inconsistency of our batting and the risk of injury, going to battle with anything less than seven specialist batsmen would be too big a gamble to take – just for the sake of having a fourth spinner in the squad.
So, as heart-breaking as Randiv’s absence is, his exclusion is excusable, and one hopes the disappointment caused him wouldn’t dent ambitions.
With so much optimism expressed for a repeat of the ’96 triumph, it has to be said that without Randiv our attack is no less any less varied than the ‘96 attack. If anything, the presence of a left arm spinner, Herath, brings to the squad greater variety than what was available 14 years ago, when the squad included just Muralitharan and Dharmasena as the specialist spinners. It should not be forgotten that the ’96 spin department was wonderfully augmented by Aravinda de Silva, whose outstanding contributions as a bowler in the final is less of an indentifying mark than his memorable century.
Doubtlessly, the present squad hasn’t a specialist batsman capable of performing the bowling feats of de Silva. Should Mathews or Perera, the all-rounders, get even close to performing de Silva’s wondrous deeds of 14 years ago, then, duplicating ’96 will become a more hopeful prospect. But whether the medium pacemen can deliver the defining deeds on pitches conducive to spin is a long shot.
The fielding in ‘96 was outstanding but there is no reason to believe Sangakkara’s men will be less efficient. If anything, the presence of younger legs suggests the present outfit can better the fielding of ‘96. But the batting line up of then far outstrips that of now, both in depth and consistency. The luxury of choosing either Roshan Mahanama, four-time centurion in both Tests and ODIs, as no. 7 or opting for an additional bowler is as good an illustration as any of the abundance of batting riches that were laid before Arjuna Ranatunga.
No such riches lie before Sangakkara, which is why Thilan Samaraweera, despite his fielding deficiencies, is included. His solidity gives the middle order the stability required for the openers to maximise on the opening 10/15 overs when the outfield is sparser. Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharna, in ‘96, had license to assault because the middle order had five batsmen capable of averting disaster, should the openers exit early, which they did, but, as the records show, at no great cost to the team’s chances.
The present middle order is of less sterner stuff, and the cheap dismissal of the openers has invariably meant the team’s dismissal for cheap totals. Our most recent ODI series, against Australia in November, provides a vivid example of the profound influence of the openers’ contribution, albeit the series was won 2/1. In the first of three ODIs Dilshan and Tharanga had both gone for 19 – and the team slid to 107/8, chasing 240. The game was eventually won largely due to an innings that no. 10 batsmen only dream of but seldom or never realise: Malinga played his once-a-lifetime innings of 56.
The second ODI example was in reverse: the openers were parted at 98 – and the team totaled 213/3 in 40 overs; Sri Lanka won by 29 runs under the D/L method. The third ODI again ran the familiar course: an opening stand of only 8 led to 115 all out in 32 overs – and a sound 8-wicket thrashing.
If over a three-match series the batting was given to such wild swings of form, one can only hope that our batsmen’s form over the initial six matches (v. Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Canada) will remain stable. Otherwise all this hype about 1996 being reenacted would be the sounds of empty vessels.