SINCE the August tri-series, with India and New Zealand, much of the cricket Sangakkara’s men had indulged in was confined to the nets. The solitary engagement in the run-up months to the World Cup, the six-week tour by the West Indies in November/December, you’ll recall, was ravaged by the monsoon: none of the three Tests ran the full course and the five-match ODI series was scrubbed off altogether.
The just concluded ODI series was to compensate for the one aborted, albeit two fewer games – make it two and half, as only one innings was possible in the first of the revised three-match scrap, due again to rain. This meagre ration of international cricket spawned its’ own set of doubts: two completed ODIs in the five months approaching the World Cup, you’ll agree, isn’t even remotely near to the sort of match practice required for the battle for world supremacy. But with the weather gods unforgiving, Sri Lanka had no alternative but to be thankful for small mercies. After all, two full international games are better than none at all.
Yet, a checkup-by- stethoscope and thermometer is hardly a credible substitute for the prescribed scan – thus, too much shouldn’t be read into last week’s two games. Sangakkara’s men, nonetheless, will be mightily glad to have won both games. Such instantaneous discovery of the ways of winning suggests that the lengthy period of hibernation has impaired the team of little, physically or mentally. To have won twice over the West Indies and had the better of the exchanges in the abandoned game does send Sri Lanka to battle in the right frame of mind – a state of mind that would’ve been denied had the triumphs of last week been less comprehensive than they were.
By any measure, a 2/0 success and the margins with which they were achieved (by eight wickets and 26 runs) is an outstanding feat. But it would be unwise to rush to the conclusion that we’re world-beaters, and a revisit to ’96 isn’t far off.
The legacy of last week’s success has obvious benefits; the best being what the old proverb says about success breeding success. There’s, however, a less cheery perspective. Truth be told, the West Indies is no great shakes; ranked ninth among the 14 World Cup competitors. So when no. 9 meets no.3, where Sri Lanka perches, you don’t expect a battle of titanic proportions, but rather, a contest running a predictable course, which was the case last week. It is thus fair to say that the West Indians presented anything but a stern examination of the strengths of Sangakkara’s team.
So, while last week’s success certainly does the team’s morale a world of good, whether just two ODIs will neuter five months of virtual dormancy in the ferocious fight for the world crown is left to be seen. It isn’t irrelevant to recall the ‘96 team’s work-schedule in the six months prior to taking the World Cup in March of that year: in September ’95 a three-Test and ODI series in Pakistan, both of which were won by Ranatunga’s team; in October, a tri-nation ODI series with Pakistan and the West Indies in Sharjah, which was also won; and then the controversy-ridden two-month tour of Australia.
By comparison, the worksheet of Sangakkara’s team in the five lead-up months has been, well, pretty much a long snooze. Happily, though, evidence was provided last week that our team aren’t about to somnambulate into the battleground. The fielding was unblinkingly alert as it was felinely swift; quite some remarkable catches were pulled off. As a sign of our physical readiness for World Cup battle, a better example could not have been provided.
Bowling, a component popularly agreed to be superior to that of ’96, was always going to be our greatest virtue. Last week provided reconfirmation: with the three first-choice bowlers (Muralidaran, Malinga and Kulasekera) rested, the second line (of Dilhara Fernando, Thisara Perera and Herath) did the job just as effectively in defending 277.
The batting, though, could’ve been more reassuring. Opener Tharanga reassured his dependability in the role as foil for the cavalier Dilshan. The left hander’s thoughtfully crafted century in the second game was a model of an opener’s innings, a product of diligence and enterprise. His undefeated 101, in a total of 199/2, took his team serenely to triumph, but more importantly, it ensured stability throughout.
It’s been some time since Dilshan was at his lethal best. He fell short of expectations last week as well, and if that means, applying the law of averages, he’ll flourish in the World Cup, well and good. But the concern is that, his failures have outnumbered his successes lately, a situation that calls for a rethink on how he approaches his innings, initially at least. Of course, separating the man from his nature would be self-defeating. But relying on the hope that the dasher might come good in the next is to ignore the damaging influence of his (getting to be frequent) failure, and the instability and despair caused to batsmen that follow.
His two innings last week lasted 23 and 28 balls, scoring 11 and 30 respectively – numbers that belie his immense talents, too valuable to be traded for bouts of brief belligerence. He might be advised to take a leaf off Tharanga’s book and give a thought or two to longevity and set his mind on extending his innings beyond 20-odd deliveries. A batsman with aggressive instincts, attack comes naturally, a thing he could do at the time of his own choosing – presently, a trifle later, is a better time to pull out the stops.
Having Dilshan go on the rampage might be a duplication of the approach so successfully adopted in ’96, but, as pointed out in these columns previously, the present team doesn’t have the luxury of, say, slotting a top quality specialist like Roshan Mahanama into no.7/8 – meaning early setbacks won’t set alarm bells clanging. Not so now. Early reversals bring all sorts of unpleasant forebodings that Sangakkara and Jayawardene must ward off, so making their jobs doubly difficult.
The middle order, the teams’ Achilles heel, did little last week to shake off doubts about its dependability. The middle order was not needed in the second game last week. In the next, though, they were required to hasten the score to 300 or thereabouts, from a prosperous 205/4 in 40.1 overs. In trying to do that no.6 Samaraweera perished in the 42nd over and two overs later, no.5 Kapugedera followed – for a collective contribution of 21.
Obviously, neither of the duo is a Michael Bevan, i.e .batsman able to swiftly adjust their batting to situations’ needs. It was only due to Angelo Mathews’ 22-ball 36 n.o. that a total of 277/9 was managed, a total that looked distant when at 239/7 in the 46th over. It is tempting to be critical over the decision to slot Mathews in at no.8 – behind Kapugedera and Perera. But that wasn’t a willy-nilly move, given that the situation demanded runs rapidly, and bludgeoners Kapugedera and Perera appeared to fit the bill better. The move might not have worked to perfection, but there was Mathews to do the job anyway.
This raises the question whether a rearrangement of the top order to suit different situations would be feasible. Should the openers, God forbid, depart early, having both of our best batsmen cope in a despairing situation is risky business. The sedate and solid Samaraweera is included just so that such precarious situations can be dealt with – batting at no. 3 or 4, not at no.5. On the other hand, in a situation similar to that of last Sunday, when the need was for rapid runs, it makes sense to give the likes of Mathews, the two Chamaras or Perera, Samaraweera’s no.5 slot.
Rearrangement of the batting order, however, isn’t a surefire thing. Put into unaccustomed positions, the question whether the profitability of our two best batsmen would diminish has to be considered. The same concerns accompany promotions from middle order to the top. To experiment with rearrangement at the World Cup is a perilous gamble. The time for such experimentation should’ve been in the months that the monsoon took away. Clearly, it’s too late in the day to rearrange plans, no matter what the compulsions are.
So unless Sangakkara’s men show bottomless resolve and steely character to overcome the deficiency of international competition, the monsoon might’ve added Sri Lanka cricket to its list of victims.