World T20 Previews: Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka are up next in our series of World T20 previews, with Dan McGrath’s semi-informed analysis of the returning champs.


 

Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka.

They’re not a team who’ve ever been considered truly mighty, but after their Asia Cup performance you’d be forgiven for rueing how far they’ve fallen.

Second to last on the points table, only gaining a win over the impressive-but-ultimately-still-minnow United Arab Emirates (itself built upon a typical ‘Lasith Malinga confuses people who have never faced him’ performance), and never really looking like competing with India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. This World T20 threatens to be a very long early exit for them, despite their status as defending champions.

Arguably, Sri Lanka are helped by being drawn in a weaker group — South Africa, England and the West Indies are all remarkably temperamental sides in this format. South Africa still unsettled with team balance. England are, well, still England despite their attempts at joining the rest of the world in 2016. And whilst the West Indies are far more formidable with the white ball than in white clothes, consistency is not their forte. The group will likely be rounded out by Zimbabwe or Afghanistan, both of whom could make life interesting for Sri Lanka if they’re not at the top of their game.

It seems cliched and self-evident, but is still worthwhile mentioning: Sri Lanka are missing their recently-retired pairing of senior batsmen, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. Both are still walk-up starters in the team if they wanted to play (though Sangakkara’s post-retirement form has been patchy to say the least). The squad lacks experience, and is heavily reliant upon three batsmen: Dinesh Chandimal, Tillakaratne Dilshan, and Angelo Mathews.

Mathews is perennially underrated; he’s genuinely one of the best batsmen in the world these days, and is crucial to Sri Lanka’s success. Not to mention he’s also a very, very handy T20 bowler — arguably better than some of the specialist bowlers featured in the Sri Lankan squad.

Dilshan is made of experience — the bloke is near-40 and still going. His recent form has been unremarkable, leading me to make the only-half-joking suggestion that he should retire in another article. And let’s face it, he probably will after this tournament. On the one hand, Dilshan is a punishing batsman who can get Sri Lanka off to a flier. On the other, the worst case scenario is that he becomes a glorified Ryan Campbell, a somehow-useful off spinner who is opening on reputation alone.

The shift of Dinesh Chandimal to the top of the order is a good one; he’s not a natural T20 batsman (as evidenced by his T20i record: an average of 17.61 at a strike rate of 102.82). But he’s hardly a defensive plodder; his 162* to single-handedly win a Test against India came at nearly a run-a-ball in immensely trying conditions. The guy can bat. Letting him face more balls to build an innings is the best way for Sri Lanka to get the most out of him, and in warm-ups it has so far paid dividends. Expect a big tournament from this man.

Past this, however, and the batting quality drops off alarmingly. Both Niroshan Dickwella and Shehan Jayasuriya are picked more on promise than results; neither have done much at international level to date — certainly a concern when Jayasuriya is slotted in to bat at three. Dasun Shanaka has huge domestic form and reputation, but once more lacks any real experience at international level — it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the step-up between SL domestic and international cricket is rather large indeed. The fact that Chamara Kapugedara is in the team, and you can do little but shrug your shoulders and think “well, I can’t actually come up with anybody better”, is worrisome.

On the all-rounder front, Milinda Siriwardana has taken to international cricket very well indeed, and will be a crucial part of Sri Lanka’s batting and bowling plans. He needs to lose the compulsive hooking — a hilarious dismissal hitting an unthreatening bouncer straight to deep square leg is always a possibility. His left arm spin will be valuable in the subcontinent, likely playing a Sean Williams-esque role of angling it in from around the wicket to limit scoring options.

Thisara Perera can do literally anything with the bat, though he can’t do it consistently, but the less said about him with the ball the better. If I were captain, he’d be playing as a specialist #7 batsman and rarely rolling the arm over since, somewhat strangely for Sri Lanka, their bowling depth is far better than their batting depth. For a side so overwhelmingly reliant on the Vaas/Murali connection for most of their history, and held together by the wobbly Rangana Herath thereafter, Sri Lanka has selected a very handy bowling attack for this tournament.

Nuwan Kulasekara is still a passable white-ball bowler when it swings, though he may need to be taken out the back and Samaraweera’d after this tournament. Unless, that is, he rebrands as a specialist batsman (there’s a Jayasuriya-shaped vacancy at #3, Nuwan!). Lasith Malinga’s best days are also behind him, but don’t underestimate the benefits of experience when it comes to his bowling at the death. He is liable to occasionally get pumped though, especially if he crosses paths with Virat Kohli. Malinga surely still has nightmares of that Hobart chase.

There’s spin depth too. Rangana Herath rounds out the canny triumvirate of meme bowlers who’ve spanned most of the current millennium, the, erm, somewhat rotund spinner still finding ways to take wickets in all formats despite never being able to get the ball to bounce above stump height (probably because Herath’s no taller than the average stump). Watch for many an LBW when batsmen play for turn that never comes. They’re always fun, which I can confirm from Australian experience — Herath is basically the spirit animal of Steve O’Keefe.

Senanayake isn’t nearly as good as when he chucked it, but that’s pretty standard when it comes to chuckers. And at least, unlike Ajmal, Kane Williamson and Marlon Samuels, he’s found a way to actually be passable without bending his arm (and/or worked out how to let his action ‘deteriorate’ without being re-tested). Jeffrey Vandersay isn’t going to set the world on fire, but as long as he stays away from Kiwis with too many toes, he’ll be a solid depth spinner. He may be traumatised if he’s put on orange cutting duties though, given his recent experiences with redheads.

The one turning point, however, could be in the pace department — which is weird considering that I’m still clinging to the hopeless idea of a Chaminda Vaas return at age 90. Dushmantha ‘Charmander’ Chameera bowls with genuine pace and bounce, but he’s raw. He’s very raw. One day he’s bouncing out New Zealand at Seddon, the next he’s being slammed at 10 an over with a white ball, and then not long after he’s taking wickets with genuine fast bowling dismissals. He’s exciting, he’s entertaining, he’s not one for middle-of-the road performances. Plus he’s nicknamed after a Pokemon, so that’s worth something.

Which is somewhat emblematic for Sri Lanka’s team in this tournament, I suppose. If everything clicks, they could be unstoppable and be damn exciting doing it. Malinga yorkers, Chameera bouncers, Dil-scoops and Thisara magic aplenty. Not to mention the potential fielding of Rangana Herath. Or they could be completely abject in their failure, crashing out to Zimbabwe as Chameera gets smacked everywhere, Senanayake gets banned for chucking (again) and someone misguidedly hands the ball to Thisara.

Either way, I think we’re going to be entertained — whether it be from high-quality T20 cricket, or in a “oh look daddy, a car crash…how many careers are going to be ended here?” way.


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