It may seem obvious, but replacing legends is far from easy. All of a sudden, out go the experience, the class and the ability to stay calm under intense pressure. And in comes the inexperience, the rash and the ability to panic under pressure. All teams have to go through a reintegration period and it’s tough. Very tough.
Even the best-equipped teams struggle. More recently, England initially found life after Kevin Pietersen, Andrew Strauss, Matt Prior, Graeme Swann – all men integral to arguably the nation’s most successful period ever between 2009 and 2014 – a real struggle and the side are still struggling for consistency, home and away. The likes of Australia, India, and South Africa have all experienced the hardship of losing legends also and the inconsistencies have been there to see.
This is what Sri Lanka are going through now. Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Muttiah Muralitharan all called time on their stellar careers and ever since their departures, Sri Lanka has been left with the enormous challenge of replacing them and moving forward as a side. And despite Sri Lanka being a cricket-mad nation with over 20 million people, this is a country that does not have the wealth of resources as the previously mentioned countries in order to produce such talented players again.
The struggles have been evident. In Tests, there has been a stunning whitewash of the mighty Australia along with a win in the West Indies, yet Sri Lanka failed to even compete in their last series in England, South Africa and New Zealand. And the difference between home performances and ones away is sill a startling one, as their Test ranking of seventh proves. ODI cricket has been equally inconsistent in recent times, with a tri-series win against West Indies and Zimbabwe combined with hammerings in England and Australia. The T20 format paints a slightly better picture, thanks to series wins in South Africa and Australia but a below par World T20 underlined the work to be done, despite their recent improvements.
So given their problems since the retirement of several heroes, you would have been forgiven to barely give Sri Lanka a sniff of even reaching the semi-finals going into this Champions Trophy. And that notion would have been reinforced after a highly disappointing showing in their first match against the South Africans at The Oval, where they lost by 96 runs. It looked a side lacking in intensity and one that was full of fear.
Yet on Thursday, at the same venue of their limp display in their first match, Sri Lanka came to life. Chasing a stiff target of 322, Angelo Mathews and his group of young, inexperienced batsmen played with the kind of aggression and professionalism that showed their fans, along with every other cricket lover, that there may well finally be life after the legends. Out went the fear and the passive nature that was evident in their first game and suddenly arrived a side that now, remarkably, seem to be dark horses in this tournament.
Amidst the euphoria of such a famous victory that will have put a smile on every single Sri Lankan face, there is a realisation that this is a nation building a strong side again. At the top of the order, Niroshan Dickwella looks a dashing, exciting player capable of giving Sri Lanka much-needed momentum that has perhaps been lacking in recent years. His opening partner on Thursday, Danushka Gunathilaka, took his chance superbly against India, hitting 76 off 72 balls and providing an excellent platform in the run-chance. And the fact that Sri Lanka still have Upul Tharanga to come back into the side emphasises the healthy depth in the opening slots.
Another player to star at The Oval was Kusal Mendis who, at just 22-years of age, has already played enough knocks to suggest he will be the stalwart of Sri Lankan batting for years to come. The side are well led by the experienced Mathews, a class player in his own right, and a middle order of Dinesh Chandimal, Kusal Perera and the exciting Asela Gunaratne looks a solid, reliable one in all formats of the game.
Perhaps an area of weakness is the fast bowling. Despite the skill and champion ability of the evergreen Lasith Malinga in the shorter formats, Sri Lanka rely heavily on the inconsistent Nuwan Pradeep and Suranga Lakmal to make breakthroughs up front and there is also a lack of depth in such a key area, although the emergence of young Lahiru Kumara in South Africa offers plenty of room for encouragement. The spin department looks good, however, despite not using a specialist one against India. Dilruwan Perera, Lakshan Sandakan and Tharindu Kaushal are all men who can lead Sri Lanka forward after the imminent retirement of Rangana Herath.
In addition, Sri Lanka are coached by Graham Ford, who was originally at the helm between 2012-14, before returning last year and subsequently he knows the environment well. Ford is a man who has wanted his side to move forward and play a positive fearless brand of cricket. In a 2016 interview with Cricbuzz, he admitted that, despite the talent, the challenge faces is huge. “We’ve played some exciting cricket with this young group,” said the South African. “It’s a big challenge for Sri Lankan cricket right now. We want to get back to where Sri Lanka was. Everybody is aware that there’s a lot of talent in the island. It’s up to everyone involved to rebuild the national side to where it was.”
Thursday’s backs-to-the-wall victory may have been only just one game, and Ford’s side are yet to qualify for the semi-finals. However, this was a win and performance that not only the whole of Sri Lanka needed but also the cricketing public. It is without doubt that the world of cricket is a better place with a competitive, threatening Sri Lanka side and, after years of trials and tribulations, those days might well be returning.