Save the Blushes, Please

Sri Lanka and Afghanistan teams walking into the ground for the national anthems prior to their match in the 2015 Cricket World Cup on 22 February 2015 at the picturesque University Oval, Dunedin, New Zealand. (© Ranjan Mellawa)

Ranjan Mellawa thinks it’s not all doom and gloom for Sri Lanka, and they can still make a good fist of the next World Cup.

In an all-time low, Sri Lanka capitulated to Afghanistan by 91 runs in the Asia Cup 2018. Angelo Mathews, already tipped to lead in the forthcoming World Cup, was axed from both captaincy and the one-day squad.

Previously, Sri Lanka had played Afghanistan in the 2015 World Cup. Lethargic fielding by the Sri Lankans helped Afghanistan post 232 runs.

The first ball of the Sri Lanka innings, trapped Thirimanna lbw. Next over, Dilshan edged a back-of-a-length delivery and was caught behind for no score. Sri Lanka were tottering at 2 for 2 after 1.2 overs. It was only the second time in ODIs that both openers were dismissed for first-ball ducks.

Matters worsened when Sangakkara was castled by a pearler for 7. It was a messy 18 for 3 after 5.3 overs. In a lighter vein, as an apt response, volunteers at the ground were seen distributing sweets and mineral water to Sri Lankan spectators!

Jayawardena joined Karunaratne and led a recovery of sorts before Karunaratne was caught in the slips. Sri Lanka in the doldrums at 51 for 4 after 12 overs. Next man in, captain Mathews hardly inspired confidence both on and off of the ground. He survived close-call run outs, first without facing a ball and again before reaching double figures. Afghanistan’s three frontline quicks had created panic and uncertainty among Sri Lanka’s batsmen. Jayawardena, however, set about rebuilding the innings. Running between wickets remained an issue, and Mathews eventually perished in that fashion for a patient 44 off 81 balls in a defining fifth-wicket stand of 126. Sri Lanka were unsteady at 177 for 5 off 40.3 overs.

Soon after reaching his 19th ODI hundred, Jayawardena departed. Sri Lanka, 178 for 6, needed 55 off 52 balls. Thisara Perera then rode his luck, swinging the willow, finding both the sweet spot and the thick edges. After 45 overs, Sri Lanka required 36 runs at 7.2 per over. Perera’s clubbing finally settled the issue, as 22 runs came off the 46th and 47th overs combined. His invaluable 47 runs were off 26 balls that dragged Sri Lanka over the line to win by 4 wickets with 10 balls remaining.

Afghanistan almost derailed Sri Lanka, though the three missed run-outs didn’t help their cause.

A few days later, Jayawardena parted with the secret to his face-saving century. “You should have seen me walking to bat. I was a nervous wreck, honestly. But then I thought ah … at the same time … we … it will be tough to go back home if we [had] lost to Afghanistan.”

On paper, Sri Lanka’s 2015 World Cup squad looked an experienced outfit. Four months before the tournament, the players were in the middle of an intense fitness and skills development programme. Interrupting this, they were forced by the board to tour India after the West Indies abandoned their tour of India midway due to a pay dispute. The five matches that were added to Sri Lanka’s crowded pre-World Cup calendar proved disastrous. Not only did it upset their World Cup preparations, but they were also whitewashed 5–0 for the first time in one-day cricket. So much for morale, in the run-up to a World Cup!

In the 2015 World Cup, Sri Lanka were a mere shadow of their fearsome reputation in limited-overs cricket. An ill-planned pre-World Cup itinerary, fitness issues, poor form, lopsided strategy, selection blunders, and in-fighting among the coaches were the purported villains.

At the time of writing, yet on a rebuilding mode, their woeful one-day record continues, losing 7 out of 12 matches played so far in 2018. Nevertheless, if Sri Lanka can overcome their 2015 deficiencies, they can still come good at the next World Cup.

Written by Ranjan, an edited version of this post appeared in the January 2019 issue of the LIVING magazine.

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