Sri Lanka, and the art of seizing key moments

On an intense day in Calcutta, as it was known in 1996, in a World Cup semifinal, Sri Lanka lost their celebrated opening pair of Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana in the first four balls of the match. Asanka Gurusinha followed soon after. However, in a daring counter-attacking innings, Aravinda de Silva set the tone for a game that sent Sri Lanka into their first World Cup final. It was unpredictable, raw and uncut cricket. The kind of cricket that earned Sri Lanka their own niche in the many brands of the game we love to categorise. In Christchurch 19 years later on Saturday (February 14), Sri Lanka appear to have shed any semblance of what have made them an endearing team to watch, going down by a massive 98 runs in the opening fixture of the 2015 World Cup against New Zealand.

Much of what unfolded at the Hagley Oval could have been predicted. In practically every game Sri Lanka played on their tour against New Zealand leading up to the World Cup, Brendon McCullum has taken the game away from Sri Lanka early on. Having watched McCullum plunder his attack since late last year, Angelo Matthews would have known what to expect.

One wonders whether throwing Lasith Malinga up against McCullum’s ferocity was the right move given this was the bowler’s first competitive game since late August 2014. It was clearly a reaction to the panic that was setting in regarding Sri Lanka’s depleted bowling stocks and form.

The signs were there that he was not ready though, going at nearly seven runs an over in Sri Lanka’s shock loss to Zimbabwe in their last warm-up game on Wednesday. Malinga’s rustiness was to New Zealand’s and McCullum’s benefit. His first four overs cost 43 runs. Mathews’s bemusing fields that lacked a deep fine leg and third man did not help either. New Zealand had set the World Cup alight, and Sri Lanka were left searching for answers.

Earlier in the day, Sri Lanka decided to include Jeevan Mendis – a player who seems to enjoy immunity in the side regardless of performance – in the playing XI. For a brief moment though, Mendis’s inclusion could have been forgiven, when his bowling along with Rangana Herath pulled New Zealand back in the middle overs. But his biggest contribution to the game, or lack thereof, came when he dropped an absolute sitter when Corey Anderson, on 43, skied a Suranga Lakmal delivery in the 46th over.

Lakmal had been hugely impressive coming on as the fourth bowler, and earlier, he had an opportunity to pick up Kane Williamson before he had scored. But Sangakkara grassed that difficult chance as well. Catches going down have become commonplace in recent Sri Lankan bowling performances. The pattern reoccurring in arguably the two most crucial moments in the match was not what Sri Lanka needed, as they clung on to the finest of threads to stay in the game. Mendis’s drop cost Sri Lanka an opportunity to keep New Zealand, who were on 278 when Mendis’s shelled the chance, to under 300. Seizing a moment in a match like de Silva did in 1996 felt like such a distant memory that you began to think of it as folklore more than fact.

Still, a target of 332 was not completely beyond Sri Lanka and they began with great intent. Lahiru Thirimanne, in his role as one of the many openers Sri Lanka have tried in the last year or two, played perhaps his best ODI innings. Thirimanne is not known for his high strike-rates, but the young batsman teased and timed his way to a breezy 65 off 60. And he needed to, given how Tillakaratne Dilshan is now adamant on his role as a purveyor of runs rather than the blitzkrieg nature everyone expects of him.

While the consistent runs that Dilshan is offering Sri Lanka are good in theory, in practical terms on a day like today, it was a hindrance rather than a benefit. Particularly given that the rest of the batting line-up for Sri Lanka, regardless of how big-name, are not compatible with the power-hitting that the modern ODI game demands. Again, these are problems that Sri Lanka have been saddled with for a few years; the lack of any powerful middle-order batsman and the shortage of lower-order hitting. Their reliance on the Big 4 is not unwarranted. The partnership of Kumar Sangakkara and Thirimanne threatened, but only until Trent Boult delivered the two best balls of the day. A late swirling yorker to Thirimanne and similar ball for a somewhat bizarre Sangakkara dismissal, who was caught leg before on the charge.

If these two could be forgiven, then Mahela Jayawardene’s lazy waft outside off stump to Daniel Vettori cannot. Jayawardene is a batting genius on his day. But it’s dismissals like these that make you pull your hair out. Sri Lanka play a sluggish Test opener at No. 6 in Dimuth Karunaratne, another position that seems impossible for them to fill. Karunaratne and Mendis are batsmen who are being asked to do a job that is beyond their skill set. It may sound brutal, but it is also the truth. It’s a reality that Sri Lanka have lived with, predictably, for a few years now, and almost routine now.

Even with all the anticipated failings in their first game though, there were positives to pluck out. Thirimanne’s innings justifies his move up the order. Rangana Herath continues to be Mathews’s most valuable and reliable bowling asset. Lakmal showed signs that he can be a potential third seamer given Nuwan Kulasekara’s poor run of form, whose position in the team should be under threat after combining with Malinga to concede 162 runs in 18 overs, roughly half of what New Zealand scored. Even Malinga showed brief signs of his pre-injury life with a couple of overs of pure yorkers. Mathews must also have the confidence in himself and his captaincy to go against the grain rather than sticking to preset plans. Not bowling Herath out and Mendis more was counterintuitive when the quick men were being plundered.

Before the World Cup began there was much talk about Sri Lanka’s tournament mettle and know-how. But it appears that their over-reliance on big stars, an out of form attack – a key cog in the wheel of their previous World cup successes – and an inability to fill positions properly is catching up to them. The next game against Afghanistan should, on paper at least, offer an easier challenge. It only becomes harder after that. Given the mechanics of this World Cup’s format, it would take a monumentally poor campaign for Sri Lanka to not find themselves in the quarterfinals. But at this early stage, without addressing their selections and being able to seize the fleeting moments within a game, it is difficult to see them go any further.

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