Sri Lanka splutter to life at MCG

In the post-match press conference the fan question to Angelo Matthews, the winning captain, was whether he thought Sri Lanka were peaking. Mathews duly pulled out the PR talk and said they were taking it a game a time and then casually mentioned that he thought Sri Lanka were clinical in the field against Bangladesh on Thursday (February 26). But then he quickly back-pedalled to say they were almost, instead. Mathews probably realised that he couldn’t actually go through with that sentence without some form of sorcery. Or perhaps three dropped chances and countless fumbles in the field from the match popped into his head. So, when the dust has settled and the ice baths are done away with and Mathews is laying on his bed after cutting it fine on the curfew, he will, hopefully, realise that it was far from clinical. Better, yes. Without fault, no.

There is something about the MCG that stirs the Sri Lankans from within. Perhaps, it is the whole Muttiah Muralitharan saga when the Sri Lanka champion was called for throwing back in 1995. Perhaps it is the large Sri Lankan population that flocks en masse to support the team, and perhaps also, it is the success they’ve enjoyed in recent years. They have now won four of the last five matches they have played at the venue. And even before the game against Bangladesh began, it was seen as a “lucky” ground for Thisara Perera to turn his bowling form around. So it is not unsurprising that Melbourne would be where Sri Lanka’s engine spluttered to life. And then of course, suitably proceeded to backfire periodically through the day.

332 for 1 is some total. A good total, and maybe even one that Sri Lanka didn’t think they had in them, given their batting form in the last two matches. It was built on the back of another brilliantly paced century by Tillakaratne Dilshan, who faced only 30% of the balls in the first 10 overs, but later propelled himself to his highest ODI score. And at 37, it was also a herculean physical effort, having stayed on the field for the entirety of the match. Supported by the irrepressible Kumar Sangakkara, who scored his 22nd ODI century to mark his 400th ODI. Although it’s difficult to class your role as a ‘supporting’ one when your own century comes off 73 balls. And while the debate about Sri Lanka’s lack of power hitters rages on, they were able to take the scoring rate from 4.9 at 30 overs to 6.64 by the end, while hitting only one six.

But before all this, there was a century opening stand between Dilshan and Lahiru Thirimanne. Thirimanne, however, played an innings that suggested he would rather be in the dressing room than in the middle. Offering more chances than the boundaries he scored, Thirimanne made one of the least inspiring fifties you would ever have the misfortune of witnessing. It was a passage of play that exhibited some dire standards of cricket.

Bangladesh had a truly horrific day in the field. If there was one ball that encapsulated that, it was when Sangakkara cut Rubel Hossain straight to Mominul Haque who dropped a sitter, realised there was a run-out chance unfolding and threw the ball at the bowler’s end. The bowler hadn’t backed up and neither had long-on, who had his back turned to the action. The end result was three runs. Sri Lanka tested Bangladesh, who failed every time. Sri Lanka played some above average cricket. Bangladesh just happened to play worse.

For Thirimanne’s part, he rode his luck and put on the start Sri Lanka were after. He and Dilshan have put together six scores of more than 50 in their last seven innings. The pair are now providing stability to a position that Sri Lanka were struggling to resolve leading up to the World Cup, having tried a number of personnel. Thirimanne, however, could do worse than attempting to rotate the strike more when he is struggling. In this mood, he gets into a shell, perhaps even a cave. A dark cave where the only light he can shine is defence. That 45 of the 78 deliveries he faced were dots says much.

When Sangakkara wasn’t being dropped – which happened twice – he played one of his most fluent innings in recent times. It is without question that Sri Lanka depend on their top order. In the last three matches, each of Mahela Jayawardene, Sangakkara and Dilshan have scored centuries. Thirimanne has two fifties. Mathews has scores of 46 and 44. The runs are being shared, which is a good sign. But the worry is always what will happen when the top order fails? Do Sri Lanka have the depth to bail them out? Afghanistan came close to asking this question, and Sri Lanka answered sheepishly. Against a better team with better support bowlers in the middle overs and certainly better fielding, Sri Lanka can ill afford careless shots and mistakes.

The worry is always what will happen when the top order fails? Against a better team with better support bowlers in the middle overs and certainly better fielding, Sri Lanka can ill afford careless shots and mistakes. © Getty Images

On the field, Sri Lanka put in a rehabilitated performance with the ball. What was most encouraging was the mending of key areas. As a collective, they clearly had a plan to bowl much fuller, and they were all at least a yard or two quicker. Lasith Malinga pitched the ball up, and it swung. In a breathtaking first over, he hooped it in to the left-handers. Tamim Iqbal got one of these deliveries. He played the perfect forward defence, but the ball swooped in through the air, past the outside of his bat and clean bowled him. Malinga continued this tempo through nine overs, and finished the game with a trademark yorker to dismiss Taskin Ahmed. Mathews, who has been backing Malinga all through the tournament, knew that his country’s World Cup fortunes hinged on Malinga and his ankle.

Suranga Lakmal has been starting his spells in this World Cup with some high-class bowling. Unfortunately for him, he’s had chances dropped in his first over against New Zealand, in his third against Afghanistan and in his first again against Bangladesh. Rangana Herath once again bowled a beautiful, beguiling spell, peppered with variations in pace and line and delivery. But once again, he went wicketless.

Overall, it was a reassuring shift. They hit the stumps, they fumbled chances, they dropped catches, they caught a few awkwardly. Promising, but by no means perfect.

Mathews also used the good position in the match to get some cheap miles under Thisara Perera’s belt as Sri Lanka continued with their tactic of three frontline bowlers only. In each of the three games so far, they have relied on a plethora of part-timers and allrounders to fill the other 20 overs. So far it has worked, but the question is whether this is a false positive. With their top order hitting form, Sri Lanka are in a good position to experiment a little with the combination. Sachithra Senanayake seems the obvious choice for the next match against England.

So are Sri Lanka peaking? Their worm has certainly raised its head from the plateau. There was a clear spark in the field, with everyone enjoying each other’s success. The pillars of jelly are slowly solidifying as Sri Lanka carefully peel away layers of self-doubt and begin to trust their experience and their capabilities. They have won two games in a row and are second on the table in Pool A, but they failed against the one side that challenged them completely. The question is whether their standard of cricket can match the one set by Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa on any given day. These are the thoughts that will occupy Mathews’s mind.

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