A visit from Sri Lanka to England in early summer would not normally be considered as a recipe for immediate success. The fact that they are very much a team in transition and contain numerous players with little experience of English conditions is also a major source of concern. To top it all off, they opened their visit, last week, with a comprehensive defeat to Scotland. That it was Scotland’s first victory against a top-tier nation will only have further confounded their misery. They can at least take comfort in the fact that they fought back strongly in the second match and handed Scotland a more customary 9 wicket defeat.
Sri Lanka’s sojourn in the Champions Trophy could well be painful and short-lived. However, an alternate and more positive hypothesis could point to this being a perfect opportunity for some of their younger players to announce themselves as future superstars.
There are not as many of these as their fans would like. Indeed a recent poll on Cricinfo identified them as even less fancied than Bangladesh to win the tournament. The bookmakers quote Sri Lanka way out at 25/1, a price that is marginally better than Bangladesh who are the rank outsiders at 33/1.
They do at least have an experienced leader at the helm in the form of Angelo Mathews. With 180 ODI’s behind him, an average of 40 with the bat and fractionally over 30 with the ball, Mathews is the picture of consistency and is indispensable to the team. Equally experienced but frustratingly less consistent is vice-captain Upul Tharanga. The opener boasts over 200 ODI appearances coupled with an impressive fourteen centuries, and along with Dinesh Chandimal forms the experienced bedrock of their batting.
Coming in at first wicket down, Kusal Mendis is more of an unknown quantity. However, he arrives on the back of a strong tour to Bangladesh and can score at a decent tempo.
With the ball, the focus will be on the low-slung arm of Lasith Malinga. He hasn’t played an ODI in eighteen months and arrives directly from a stint in the IPL. His reputation as a white ball bowler is exceptional, along with his mastery of the in-swinging yorker and the surprise bouncer. The key to Sri Lanka’s chances of progression is to have Malinga fit and able to bowl his full set of ten overs.
On a positive note, the group also pits them against two other Asian teams, India and Pakistan, which may help balance out any lack of acclimatisation to non-subcontinental conditions.
The absence of legendary performers like Sangakkara, Dilshan and Jayawardene are likely to be felt by any team. All of these players appeared alongside the wily Rangana Herath when they reached the semi-final of the Champions Trophy in 2013. On that occasion, they were dismantled by eight wickets against this year’s group opponents, India.
Their current squad is significantly less eye-catching and is, with the exception of Malinga, lacking in marquee players. Mathews is solid although he is returning from injury, and Chandimal, Tharanga and Dickwella can perform well on their day but either lack experience or consistency. One is left with the feeling that there is an overall lack of depth within the squad.
With the bat, it is easy to see them coming under intense pressure if they lose early wickets. The middle order also appears slightly below par but does have the ability to be explosive if the right foundation can be set.
There will also be a strong reliance on Malinga and Kulasekara to make early breakthroughs. Otherwise, their change and fill-in bowlers could come under heavy fire in the middle overs on the road-like wicket at KIA Oval (scene of their first two matches).
The star name is undeniably Lasith Malinga. Sri Lanka skipper Angelo Matthews has confirmed this in a recent interview with The Hindustan Times. In it, Mathews commented on Malinga that:
“We look forward to utilising him in the matches … he’s very key. And he got here a few days back, very keen to get on the park.”
Those comments should hopefully quell any concerns over their strike bowler’s fitness and appetite. Malinga, for his part, never looked a picture of athleticism even in his prime. So, the fact that he is appearing to carry some additional timber should be of limited concern. Doubt continues to persist, though, over whether Malinga can bowl up to 10 overs an innings, or cope with three matches in nine days.
If he was to break down in the early matches or struggle to recapture his old form, from what is now a steadily reducing pace, then Sri Lanka’s chances of progression would be heavily diminished. Angelo Mathews is all too aware of this and went on to add, in the same article, in relation to Malinga and his team’s chances that:
“We all know that he’s a match-winner. He’s proven himself over the past so many years and he can win us a game single-handedly. So we’re looking forward to it. Very much excited.”
As a wildcard, the young left-arm wrist spinner Lakshan Sandakan may also be able to pull off a couple of shocks. He has a fast, skiddy action and can turn the ball both ways – the perfect anatomy of the kind of bowler that can cause rapid shockwaves at a major tournament. It’s his misfortune that his group opponents, India and Pakistan, are probably the best equipped of all teams in the tournament to deal with him.
1. Upal Tharanga
2. Niroshan Dickwella (wk)
3. Kusal Mendis
4. Dinesh Chandimal
5. Angelo Mathews (c)
6. Asela Gunaratne
7. Thisara Perera
8. Lakshan Sandakan
9. Suranga Lakmal
10. Nuwan Kulasekara
11. Lasith Malinga
Can Sri Lanka win it?
Outsiders can win major international tournaments, as exemplified by Greece’s 100-1 triumph in football’s 2004 European Championship. To lift the Champions Trophy a team can afford to lose a group match and only need win 4 matches overall. This creates a perfect scenario for an underdog to rise from the pack and cause a surprise.
However, this is a weaker looking Sri Lankan team than we are used to seeing in the recent past. Their ODI form over the last twelve months has been poor and includes a 5-0 drubbing against their first group opponents South Africa. Even on the back of their famous home test series whitewash of Australia, they succumbed to a 4-1 ODI reverse. Their ODI appearances in England last summer also failed to produce even a solitary win amid a 3-0 defeat.
With an ordinary squad and a poor run of form behind them, it is hard to accentuate the positive. They have also not been greatly helped by the schedulers who have set Pakistan as their final group match. On paper, this looks to be their most winnable game against an opponent that is chronically inconsistent.
An early victory could have established some immediate momentum and ignited a spark of confidence throughout the team. Instead, they run the very real risk of their tournament already being over by the time they meet Pakistan in Cardiff.
To put it curtly and in bookmaker parlance, Sri Lanka are definitely a team to lay rather than to back.