Like it is the case with most teams, the significance of this ODI series lies in further establishing the blueprint for the T20 World Cup for the two sides in contention - Sri Lanka and West Indies.
Even though their recent series results don’t reflect it, West Indies pride themselves in the T20 circuit with a batting line-up comprised of acclaimed T20 batsmen coming one after another. They came to this series on the back of some promising results in ODI cricket post the World Cup debacle last year. They defeated Afghanistan in India, then tested a strong Indian side in their own conditions and thumped Ireland before landing in Sri Lanka.
The Kieron Pollard-led side, however, have been humbled by the Islanders. The first ODI was a close game but the Caribbean side came nowhere close in the second game crumbling to a 161-run defeat. In fact, the last time West Indies defeated Sri Lanka was in 2016. Since 2011, they have won against Sri Lanka only twice in 12 completed matches. The home team have continued their dominance in this series. Also, they have now won five consecutive ODIs at home.
West Indies have plenty of questions to answer. The first is the dip in Pollard’s form. The West Indian skipper has only 158 runs to his name in eight innings at a below-par average of 26.3. His golden duck in Hambantota killed West Indies’ run-chase. Similarly, Sheldon Cottrell, their strike bowler, has been vastly expensive. While his strike-rate - 30 balls per wicket - has been good, his economy rate of 6.8 runs per over has not helped West Indies.
The lack of a quality spinner has also hurt the Caribbean team. Since 2019, their spinners have averaged 51.8 runs per wicket compared to 35.1 by the pacers. The difference has narrowed down since the World Cup last year but West Indies’ spinners still need to do a lot more.
It was surprising when West Indies opted to bench Hayden Walsh for the Hambantota ODI. On a track where the Sri Lanka spinners broke the back of West Indies’ run-chase, the visitors could not pick a single wicket during the middle overs allowing the home side to romp to a formidable total of 345.
They also need to retrospect Roston Chase’s role in ODI cricket. In Shai Hope, they already have a batsman to play the anchor role. Do they need another batsman with the same approach? Is it ideal to have two batsmen in the XI with strike-rates less than 70 given the dynamics of modern-day ODI cricket?
One positive for the Men in Maroon has been Alzarri Joseph’s continuous emergence as a vital cog in their bowling unit. Picking three wickets apiece in the two games, he currently is West Indies’ highest wicket-taker post the 2019 World Cup. On a batting friendly ground in Pallekele - a record average run-rate of 6.8 runs per over since 2018 - Joseph might have a huge role to play.
For Sri Lanka, Avishka Fernando has been a huge positive. The right-handed batsman loves batting against West Indies. In the World Cup encounter between the two sides last year, Fernando struck a match-winning hundred. He started this series with a fifty and amassed another ton in Hambantota. Safe to say, he has sealed the opener’s spot in Sri Lanka’s ODI side.
Wanindu Hasaranga is another superstar in making. He bamboozled West Indies with figures of three of 30 in the second ODI. Since the World Cup, he has been Sri Lanka’s most effective spinner taking a wicket every 37.7 deliveries. With these two youngsters coming good, Sri Lanka have filled two significant voids in their line-up.
The home side fielded an unchanged XI in the first two games but with the series sealed, they might want to give some game time to the benched players in their 14-man squad - Niroshan Dickwella, Shehan Jayasuriya and Lahiru Kumara.
Probable XI: Dimuth Karunaratne (c), Avishka Fernando, Niroshan Dickwella (wk), Kusal Mendis, Angelo Mathews, Shehan Jayasuriya, Thisara Perera, Wanindu Hasaranga, Lahiru Kumara, Isuru Udana/Nuwan Pradeep, Lakshan Sandakan
As mentioned above, keeping Walsh out of the side was not a smart move from West Indies and he should be seen on the field again replacing Fabian Allen. Sunil Ambris has scored only 40 runs in his last five ODI innings and might have to make way for Brandon King. Rovman Powell is another player in the squad who is yet to get a game and it will be interesting to see if the away side replace him with Roston Chase.
Probable XI: Shai Hope (wk), Brandon King, Darren Bravo, Nicholas Pooran, Kieron Pollard (c), Roston Chase/Rovman Powell, Jason Holder, Keemo Paul, Hayden Walsh, Alzarri Joseph, Sheldon Cottrell