Sri Lankan cricket in transition

by Sudat Pasqual
Since the completion of the 2003 World Cup, Sri Lanka's cricket scene has undergone some major changes. Starting with the resignation of Jayasuriya from the position of Captain and Aravinda de Silva's retirement from active cricket, the subsequent change in the national selection panel, and the impending change of the management guard at the BCCSL, cricket in Sri Lanka is in a process of realignment. While the retirement of de Silva came as no surprise, the resignation of Jayasuriya was more of an unexpected move. Many were caught off-guard by Jayasuriya's move especially since he had a good run with the bat at the World Cup and was successful in terms of leading the team to the final four of the tournament. In terms of popular expectations, the team under Jayasuriya faired well considering the miserable run they had in South Africa and Australia just prior to the World Cup. The team pulled up their socks and came within two games of winning it all at the World Cup. Looking from this angle, Jayasuriya's move it may seem a bit perplexing, but when one digs a little deeper into the make up of the team and more importantly the performance level of some key players, one will not fail to see that all is not well with Sri Lanka cricket.

On paper, even without de Silva, Sri Lanka looks an excellent team with years of experience at the international level. Jayasuriya, Muralitharan, Tillekeratne, Vaas, Attapattu, Jayawardena, Arnold and Sangakkara have all been playing international cricket for many years. In terms of matches played, very few teams have the exposure of the Lankan side. Yet, time and again the team has come up short against quality opposition especially on conditions foreign to them. Ever since getting into the big league in 1982, the Achilles heel of Sri Lanka cricket has been in the department of bowling. True, in Muralitharan the team does have a very potent weapon that can turn a match solely on his magic fingers, but one bowler does not make a successful bowling attack. At a minimum, a team playing in the rarefied atmosphere of test and one - day cricket must have three bowlers who have the ability to turn the game in favor of their team. Some may argue that in Muralitharan, Vaas, Nissanka and Dilhara Fernando Sri Lanka does have the bowling to be successful at the international level, but none of these bowlers, excepting Muralitharan and Vaas occasionally, are consistent in conditions outside home to be a fear factor for the top teams like Australia, England, South Africa and New Zealand.

On the batting front, the traditional area of Sri Lanka's strength, recent years have shown a marked weakness against quality fast and seam bowling. The much talked about batting line-up of Jayasuriya, Attapattu, Jayawardena, Sangakkara, Tillekeratne and Arnold came up short time and again against good fast and seam bowling. In most cases, the batsmen were found short in areas of technique, commitment and shot selection. Sri Lankan top order, except in the cases of Attapattu, Jayasuriya and Tillekeratne were found wanting against the bouncing and seaming balls. Probably the main reason for this shortcoming is the lack of exposure at the domestic level on a REGULAR basis to similar playing conditions. For decade's curators, officials, the media and the public who are very much in favour of flashy batsmanship have pampered the Sri Lankan batsmen by preparing docile tracks at home encouraging fancy strokeplay. As a result, Sri Lankan batsmen are rarely challenged on home conditions and when they undertake tours to part of the globe dissimilar to home conditions, they routinely fall short of expectations. Actually, the local batsmen are so used to pitches that are slow and with even bounce that anything out of the ordinary even on local pitches are bound to catch them by surprise. A good case in point is what's happening in Dambulla at the present time. True, the pitches at Dambulla are probably not the best ones for stroke play. We have seen the ball moving off the seam, bouncing chest high or higher and turning quite sharply at Dambulla. Going into the finals, only Pakistan has managed to top the 200 run mark in an inning. In spite of the criticism levelled by the participants, the wickets at Dambulla have produced some exciting and absorbing cricket, albeit of the low scoring kind. I am not with the school of thought that believes high scoring games are a must for one-day cricket. The crowd pulling capacity of cricket, or for that matter any sport, depends on the level of competitiveness shown on the field. If a game goes to the wire, like the last one between New Zealand and Sri Lanka where New Zealand scoring 156 runs turned out winners by 9 runs, does it matter that the winner didn't score 250 runs and the loser 241 runs? I say not because the outcome remains the same and the level of excitement and crowd involvement would be on equal levels.

What has been evident at Dambulla, in terms of Sri Lanka batting is a clear lack of adjustment, application and discipline to change their game plan to conditions not fully suited for carefree stroke play. A careful analysis of Sri Lankan wickets to fall during this tournament will show that many of the top order batsmen perished to poor shots and poor technique against the bouncing and moving ball. In conditions such as Dambulla, it would be obvious to most that any total in excess of 175 runs should be a very competitive one and the safest way to get there is through judicious running between wickets and playing high percentage (low risk) shots. The New Zealand skipper Fleming, when asked the key to scoring on wickets like Dambulla was quick to say that singles and doubles are the keys to getting runs on this type of wicket. It goes without saying that shots like the reverse sweep and the slog pull are ill suited on wickets at Dambulla. Yet, we saw Jayawardena attempting an extravagant reverse sweep in the 50th over of the New Zealand match and perishing and thereby handing the match to the Kiwis. Till that ill fated shot, Jayawardena batted very sensibly while taking minimum risks and for a fleeting moment my senses were dulled into thinking that I was seeing a new and more mature player who understood the responsibility of bringing the team home in a crisis situation. Well, unfortunately this was not the case. The impetuous nature of Jayawardena overtook him and the rest as they say is history. Many have said Jayawardena is the most "talented" stroke maker in the Sri Lankan side. After watching Jayawardena bat at the international level for a few years, I am aware of the array of shots in his resume. I have also seen him bat very well on a number of occasions, but when I take a look at his batting statistics I find very little evidence to suggest that he has what it takes to carry the future of Sri Lanka batting on his shoulders. Bluntly put, it doesn't take a player of immense "talent" to average less than 20 runs per inning in 10 one-day internationals. Jayawardena may prove me wrong in the near future and score a ton of runs and nobody will be happier than I, but in order to get to the required consistency expected of him he needs to realise that all the talent in the world is going to be of little use if he is unable to play each ball on its merit. If he cannot show more sense in selecting his shots, then he is likely to find out the hard way that all his talent combined with four rupees will get him a cup of plain tea at any of the tea kiosks in the country and not a whole lot more. He cannot expect a team of professionals like the Kiwis to roll over and play dead just because he has more shots in his repertoire than the whole New Zealand team. At the rate he is digressing, Jayawardena is on the way to becoming an irrelevant factor in Sri Lanka cricket.

Looking at the make up of the present Sri Lankan team, it is obvious that the team is not playing anywhere near their full potential. Considering the fact that the team is playing under two new captains and the team management is in a flux due to the impending BCCSL elections, this maybe an understandable situation. The changes that are bound to take place shortly are likely to have an unsettling affect on all concerned and as a result the players and coaches may have more than cricket on their minds at present. We need to be cognizant of these factors when analysing the state of the game in Sri Lanka. It is likely that the team will take a few more months and a few more tours to jell as a coherent unit. However, what is more disturbing is the fact that the glaring shot comings of the team in terms of dependable middle order batting, wicket keeping and adequate bowling support for Muralitharan still remain unsolved. In terms of middle order batting, excepting the inclusion and the modest success of Dilshan, the team is still largely dependent on the old horses Sangakkara, Jayawardena Kaluwitharana and Arnold. Disturbingly, these players continue to show poor form and there seem to be hardly any players among the hopefuls who can fill their shoes.

When discussing the availability of capable batsmen to represent the country at the international level, I have heard many of the current coaches contracted by the BCCSL say that we have the talent, especially in batting and what is lacking is the processes to identify and harness this talent. Ok, if Sri Lanka is chock a full of talent as they say, then why are we playing two batsmen wicket keepers in both versions of the game? Come to think of it, if you take into consideration the fact that Hashan Tillekeratne and Tillekeratne Dilshan are also sometime wicket keepers who have donned the gloves for the country, Sri Lanka has THREE batsmen wicket keepers (Sangakkara, Kaluwitharana and Dilshan in ODI`EDs and the first two and Tillekeratne in tests) in their respective teams. Call me a skeptic, but I find the talk of abundant batting talent hard to believe. I also find it hard to believe that a person such as Aravinda de Silva who just finished playing in the domestic arena for over a decade and who is an influential member of the current selection panel, will fail to spot the abundance of batting talent available in the domestic arena. It is highly unlikely that the selectors will persist with playing three batsmen wicket keepers in the side and upset the balance of the team if they felt that there were players skilled enough of fitting into the middle order. Also, the fact that Kumar Dharmasena was drafted into the test side as a utility player, also suggest that Sri Lanka doesn't have quality middle order batsmen to fit into the equation. We all know that Dharmasena is a bits and pieces cricketer mostly suited to play the shorter version of the game. His batting and bowling skills are not sufficient to be considered as a test player. Yet, Sri Lanka has to count on his services due to the dearth of available talent.

If the current crop of middle order batsmen continue to fail then the selectors will have to seriously consider giving former national players like Chamara Silva, Tilan Samaraweera and Indika de Saram another try to see if they can perform more consistently. They may also do well to give players like Anushka Polonowita of CCC and Sanjaya Jayaratne of Kurunegala CC a chance. If given an opportunity these players may prove that they are capable of performing consistently at the international level.

It is also time that the team had a specialist wicket keeper playing at test level and a wicket keeper batsmen playing at the one day level. As mentioned above, there will come a time that the team will find it extremely difficult to play two or three wicket keepers at both levels of the game and keep the necessary balance of the team. Maybe the time has come to draft Prasanna Jayawardena to the test side and consider Kaluwitharana only for ODI's.

On the bowling front, Prabath Nissanka has come a long way in the last couple of months. He has the pace and he has improved the accuracy of his deliveries markedly. Once Dilhara Fernando recovers fully, the fast bowling department should look promising. At the same time, the national coaches need to work with both Nissanka and Fernando to get the speed of their deliveries into the 140-150 kmh ranges and also help them develop different types of deliveries to challenge the top batsmen in the world. We have seen both these bowlers working up generous speeds, but they have found it difficult to maintain the same over long periods. It maybe a simple case of improving the fitness levels of the two but their effectiveness will depend largely on attaining those speeds, maintaining them for prolong periods of time as well as developing different types of deliveries like yorkers, bouncers and swinging ones. In Lokuarachchi, Sri Lanka may have found a good enough all rounder to service both aspects of the game but his progress will have to be monitored very closely. Lokuarachchi has the skills to become useful at both aspects of the game but he has a long way to go as a bowler. Presently he is mainly a run stopper who will take the occasional wicket, but in time to come he needs to give Muralitharan full time support from the other end. Lokuarachchi needs to realize this and work on improving the skill levels pertaining to his bowling to reach a stage where he can find a place in the team solely as a bowler.

Judging from what has been happening at the national level for the last few months, it seems obvious that Sri Lankan cricket is in a period of transition. The team has lost their most experienced player in Aravinda de Silva due to retirement and their most devastating batsmen Jayasuriya is entering the winter of his career. The team has two new captains in Tillekeratne at test level and Attapattu at one day level. In the case of Tillekeratne, his appointment maybe a very short term one due to his age. We are also hearing grumbling from Muralitharan about his workload and he may opt out of one day cricket altogether to concentrate on the longer version of the game. In all fairness to Muralitharan, this seems like a reasonable request. In that case the team needs to find a front line line spinner to fill the void adequately, no bowler will be able to fully fit into Muralitharan's shoes, at the one-day level. On the wicket keeping front, the team will have to make a choice between Sangakkara and Kaluwithrana at the one-day level and seriously consider playing Prasanna Jayawardena consistently at the test level. Based on Sangakkara's record as a batsman wicket-keeper, it is unlikely that he can continue to play this dual role successfully at the test level. Then, it makes sense to invest in Jayawardena for the future. However way you look at it, the national selectors have their work cut out in the near future. They will have to take all of the above and more into consideration when making their selections for the national team. On the positive side, the inclusion of Aravinda de Silva into the selection panel seems to have injected a new sense of direction to the whole process. The selectors under de Silva's guidance seem to, at a minimum understand the needs of the team and seem to be interested in keeping an open mind about the needs of the team. The new selection committee is also making a commendable effort to explain their thinking to the public. By opening themselves to the media, they have made the process less secretive and more transparent. They have also been quick to support the personnel of their choice in public. This new development bodes well for Sri Lanka cricket. Now it is time for the cricketers to step up to the wicket and adjust their game plan to suit the needs of the team.