The year in which Sri Lanka was reeling from bomb blasts and bloody battles was also a watershed in the history of the island’s sporting career. An improbable Cricket World Cup victory in 1996 was an unlikely balm for all Sri Lanka’s wounds – and fittingly, the islanders celebrated together.
Paradoxically, the rise to the top in the cricketing field triggered an avalanche of politicos, businessmen, and sundry others in committee rooms who began competing for honorary positions to administer the game on behalf of the nation.
Even the cup winning heroes wilted. As they rested on their laurels, the commitment of many of these champions waned. Poorly led, Sri Lanka were shambolic at the 1999 World Cup – beating only the lower ranked Zimbabwe and Kenya, and losing badly to England, South Africa, and India. However, in 2003, they fared better before losing to Australia in the semi-finals.
Following the retirement of some World Cup winners, their replacements, and the remaining players charted our island nation’s course to a golden era in white-ball cricket. The Sri Lankans were five times finalists at major world tournaments between 2007 and 2014 – two in 50-over ODIs and three in T20s – and they added another world trophy by winning the 2014 World Twenty20 in Bangladesh.
Sadly, poorly planned itineraries, fitness issues, poor form, lopsided strategy, selection blunders, and infighting among the coaches made Sri Lanka falter in 2015. Since that World Cup, Sri Lanka has had a dreadful run in ODIs at the time of writing, losing 39 of 64 matches played (one tied and four no results).
Sri Lanka played 42 matches against stronger teams – England, India, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and Pakistan. Out of 20 ODI wins, only 6 were against these teams.
Notwithstanding four consecutive scores of over 300 in the group stage of the 2015 World Cup, Sri Lanka couldn’t progress beyond the quarter-finals. The modern one-day game with two new balls and four men outside the circle requires at least four frontline bowlers – not half-baked ‘all-rounders’ who could hardly deliver 10 overs and are occasionally effective with the bat!
Cricket is not the game it used to be 10 years ago. Twenty20 has made major inroads into traditional ODI cricket. Bigger bats have enhanced performance with new strokes covering 360 degrees round the pitch. Scores once deemed impossible to chase are now the norm. Innovative fielding, including spectacular boundary line catches has emerged. Even bowling has evolved as a result of T20s.
Notwithstanding four consecutive scores of over 300 in the group stage of the 2015 World Cup, Sri Lanka couldn’t progress beyond the quarter-finals. The modern one-day game with two new balls and four men outside the circle requires at least four frontline bowlers – not half-baked ‘all-rounders’ who could hardly deliver 10 overs and are occasionally effective with the bat!Bowling was considered Sri Lanka’s Achilles’ heel but batting and brilliant fielding compensated for it over the years. Dubbed ‘best fielding team in Asia’ over three decades, Sri Lanka slid with costly misses along the way. Click To Tweet
Following the 2015 World Cup, muddled selection policies and reportedly, undue administrative interference resulted in lack of continuity, leaving the team in perpetual survival mode.
A staggering 44 players represented the country in ODI cricket since the 2015 World Cup, 23 of them debutants. This situation has been aggravated by poor people management skills of key officials, which has had a negative impact on players’ confidence. The repeated replacement of coaching staff has hampered players’ progress in contrast to their counterparts from stronger cricketing nations.
Injuries to key players have also been a stumbling block. The players themselves must take ownership of fitness levels with professional guidance from support staff. Speaking last year about self-discipline and high standard of fitness, the evergreen Virat Kohli revealed that he hasn’t eaten butter chicken and naan for the past four years!
Bowling was considered Sri Lanka’s Achilles’ heel but batting and brilliant fielding compensated for it over the years. Dubbed ‘best fielding team in Asia’ over three decades, Sri Lanka slid with costly misses along the way.
No wonder then that Sri Lanka almost missed out qualifying for the 2019 World Cup. Teams with a battle hardened core group, aided initially by Arjuna Ranatunga’s aggressive leadership and then Mahela Jayawardena’s tactical brilliance, guided Sri Lanka to success at different times.
Unlike in the past, exceptionally talented schoolboys may not walk into the national team and perform well as the bar is much higher now in international cricket. A bloated domestic first-class structure is not conducive to fostering excellence. Despite repeated efforts by past greats, vested interests have stalled any meaningful steps towards restructuring.
Though next year’s World Cup kicks off in early English summer, the ICC will want to prepare batsman-friendly pitches to satisfy broadcasters and sponsors. The expected par-score is around 350. Mastering the art of hitting sixers should be a priority for the team. Successes in Bangladesh augurs well for players’ confidence under Chandika Hathurusingha – highly rated, many believe his arrival could swing Sri Lanka’s fortunes.
The reappointment of Angelo Mathews as ODI captain has also given the team hope. Experienced in English conditions, the team’s premier batsman and useful medium-pacer, will be the key player for Sri Lanka at the 2019 World Cup – if he stays fit.
On the other hand, Lasith Malinga will be badly missed. Out of form and low on fitness, he is closer to retirement than playing another World Cup. So the team is far from having a settled ODI unit, yet. A more committed and consistent Thisara Perera has the potential to be a match winner against any opponent. And Akila Dananjaya and Lakshan Sandakan are also poised to enhance Sri Lanka’s legacy of producing mystery spinners. Include Niroshan Dickwella, Kusal Janith Perera, Kusal Mendis and Nuwan Pradeep, and Sri Lanka may very well overcome its dubious dark horse status in the next World Cup.
In 1996, the odds against Sri Lanka winning (even as a co-host) were as high as 33-1. In comparison, it’s 12-1 for 2019 amidst moderate expectations. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka have a history of punching above their weight and performing unexpectedly in major tournaments. Pinch-hitting in the restrictive first 15 overs gave them a competitive advantage in the 1996 World Cup.
At the 2009 World Twenty20, Tillakaratne Dilshan’s audacious Dilscoop, and Malinga’s slow full tosses (they swerved away from right-handers towards the stumps) shell-shocked the opposition. What can they come up with next – two spinners opening the bowling?
Let’s hope the players and administrators get their act together and come up with another ideal innovation in the 2019 World Cup.
This article appears in the May 2018 issue of Living magazine.