“This is a huge series for Sri Lanka and the quicker they adapt to England’s ODI pioneers, the better they will get”
Ten years ago, a Sri Lanka – England ODI would have generated immense buzz. Kevin Pietersen would be pioneering England’s middle overs against the wile of Muttiah Muralitharan and Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena would perhaps be belting it out against Andrew Flintoff and Graeme Swann.
Times have changed, though. England are close to scaling the peaks of One Day International cricket and Sri Lanka have plummeted to the bottom of the pile after the retirements of several pillars who held them upright all these years. From the beginning of 2017, Sri Lanka have been so deplorable in ODIs that they have won just 10 matches out of 41, and have been whitewashed thrice.
The latest news, though, is their unceremonious dumping in the Asia Cup, where Bangladesh and Afghanistan belted them to ensure an early exit from the tournament. The aftermath has seen Angelo Mathews being sacked as skipper and player but it comes right at the time England, one of the best ODI sides going around, are touring them.
In many ways, the England – Sri Lanka match-up is lop-sided right now. But from the Lankan point of view, it has perhaps come at an opportune time. In many ways, their plight before the 2019 World Cup mirrors that of England before the 2015 World Cup. The difference, though, is that Sri Lanka have a dearth of talent in domestic cricket due to the low quality in the circuit while England were reluctant to move past their erstwhile stars and reserved approach.
What changed for England is a Brobdingnagian change in mindset. They shed their yellow leaves and grew the bright green ones immediately. The results are bearing fruit at about the right time. Sri Lanka have possibly started it off with Mathews but everything points towards the former skipper being a mere scapegoat rather than a spent force.
Since 2017, while the Sri Lankan batsmen were struggling to hold up, Mathews was among the only few to save face. He averages a whopping 59.20 in 23 ODIs in this time frame, with six scores over 50. That the rest of Sri Lanka’s batting has come to a cropper further adds weight to Mathews’ numbers.
So why was he sacked? The move, especially at this time, seems an ill-thought-out one. The criticism levied against him is his slow running and lack of energy in the field. If Mathews can indeed improve a touch in these aspects (he probably needs to!), Sri Lanka will benefit. But the problems do not stop with Mathews.
While strike rates of batsmen have gone spiralling down, the economy rates of bowlers have soared. In times where scoring fast is acing scoring big, Sri Lanka seem to be able to neither restrict the scoring rate of opposition nor match it themselves. Make no mistake, they have a plethora of hitters in the side but none of them have shown the composure or perseverance to produce sustained results. A typical example in this regard would be Upul Tharanga at the top (or Kusal Perera). The southpaw has gotten the team off to a flier but it has barely lasted more than 6-8 overs on most occasions.
It is here that they could benefit from playing England, a much superior side in several respects. England were themselves in a fix before a World Cup four years back. They did not make the necessary changes well before the tournament and paid the price during it with an underwhelming display. Sri Lanka do not want to go down the 2015 England route. Instead, they need to make the changes England made after the World Cup about right now!
There is enough time before the World Cup to bring about a change in the way they play. That they have a thinking taskmaster, Chandika Hathurusinga, as their head coach would help Lanka make this transition quicker. Yes, in the long run, they need the board to better their domestic league and bring more quality. But for now, backing their players and giving them specific agenda before each game will be quintessential.
Making best use of available resources would be the priority for Sri Lanka. They cannot have batsmen coming in and smashing the 20-ball 30s every third innings. They need consistency in scoring and consistency in hitting.
That alone will not change things. The economy rates of the bowlers have been a problem and this has stemmed from an inability to find breakthroughs in between big partnerships. The Rahim – Mithun one destroyed them in the Asia Cup against Bangladesh.
While conditions would be more helpful back home, Sri Lanka will need to realise that they need their spinners to restrict scoring rates as well as break partnerships in England next year. They cannot do that with bits and pieces spinners who bowl with little plan. Backing talented guns is vital as is their sustained grooming.
Lakshan Sandakan for one has ounces of talent and would probably be a handful for England batsmen on slower wickets but it is vital to use him in an attacking capacity while ensuring he does not leak runs immensely. This would even give him the confidence to replicate performances in tougher conditions.
Sandakan is a mere example and several similar ones run in this Sri Lankan side. With constant chop and change, they cannot look to achieve their World Cup dreams. What they need is to instill confidence in their players and if they need inspiration, they need to look no further than England, a team that has transformed unrecognisably since the last World Cup and importantly at a frenetic pace. This is a huge series for Sri Lanka and the quicker they adapt to England’s ODI pioneers, the better they will get.