A Test playing nation goes into a T20 World Cup and wins only two of their five Super 12 matches, both against underperforming sides. Such an outcome is enough to cause an uproar in the aftermath of the squad’s homecoming. But things are different with Sri Lanka even though they have had an unfortunate history of extreme reactions post lesser disappointing series conclusions.
They have been a side in the transition stage ever since their last silverware victory in 2014. There was just nothing in between. From 2020 until the start of this T20 World Cup, Sri Lanka won only three out of their 17 T20 internationals, two of them against a second string touring Indian side. You would think they didn’t understand the dynamics of T20 cricket. But it was a case of lack of resources and inadequate decision making.
Sri Lanka were not as hard done by the retirements of the Muralis and the Malingas earlier as they were with Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Tillekaratne Dilshan hanging their boots one by one. It clearly reflects in their numbers. Their batting average and strike-rate, irrespective of the batting phase or countering spin and pace, were competing not with the Test playing nations but with the Associate ICC members.
Those touted to hold the batting baton nosedived in their white-ball career. Sri Lanka looked at a new stream, investing in Kusal Mendis, Niroshan Dickwella and Danushka Gunathilaka. They received an exaggerated ban for a bio-bubble breach, in the ongoing World Cup year. A big setback after they were nearly confident of competing well in the tournament.
“We've just got to be getting our batting to a level where players are averaging 40 consistently. Because if they are averaging 40 consistently, we're getting enough runs. With our attack, we'll have enough to bowl sides out,” said Sri Lanka’s head coach Mickey Arthur in an interview with The CricketMonthly earlier this year. Sri Lanka turned their heads to a new line of batsmen. Well, the third time's the charm.
Charith Asalanka and Pathum Nissanka are both below 25 years of age. Both of them made their international debut this year, Nissanka in March and Asalanka only after the aforenamed trio was banned, in June. They were the only Sri Lankans among the top 10 run-scorers in the tournament, they were the only ones who illustrated intent.
Asalanka scored 231 runs at a fantastic average of 46.2 while striking at 147.1. These are the numbers of a quintessential T20 batsman. He was the Player of the Match in both of Sri Lanka’s victories. Nissanka seemed like a fish out of water in white-ball cricket earlier this year but showed an evolved side of his batsmanship in his 58-ball 72 on a tough Sharjah pitch.
"I've watched every cricketer now in Sri Lanka, but I don't see batting talent like Pathum Nissanka and Charith Asalanka,” said Arthur after their win over Bangladesh.
Bhanuka Rajapaksa, aged 30, returned to the side in September 2021, after a 20-month gap and instilled muscle power at number five. Sri Lanka attempted to resolve their middle-order woes by shifting Avishka Fernando to number four. It appeared to be a masterstroke in the build up to the tournament where Fernando amassed 239 runs in four T20s. The expectations fell flat in the main event (52 runs in seven innings) but Fernando is a talent Sri Lanka are going to persist with rather than shelving aside.
They didn’t average 40 which is quite unrealistic in T20 cricket but Sri Lanka covered a lot of chinks in their batting.
There is enough hint that the batting talent in Sri Lanka has not hit the nadir past its golden generation. The averages did but maybe it is time to explore the other side of the continuum. That is what they have been missing given their bowling line-up can compete with the best.
In Dushmantha Chameera and Lahiru Kumara, they have two bowlers who can pepper the speed-o-meter to 150 kph. Maheesh Theekshana is the latest mystery spinner in town. Then there is Wanindu Hasaranga, a superstar, already made, forget in making. In the near future, he is expected to make Sri Lanka’s presence felt in the T20 leagues around the world, like Rashid Khan.
With 119 runs at a strike-rate of 148.8 and 16 wickets in eight matches including a hat-trick, he would be the undisputed choice for the Player of the Tournament award had Sri Lanka gotten close to the semif-finals. He might still win it.
Sri Lanka have one one of the more complete bowling attacks in world cricket at present with back ups available. There is also the left-arm seamer in Binura Fernando.
They showcased these positives in nearly every match. Besides their wins, they pushed sides like South Africa and England. England required a Jos Buttler masterclass to get past them. South Africa had their backs against the wall for 18 overs of their run chase until Kumara missed his mark more than once at the death.
“It was enough to defend for Lahiru. He was bowling yorkers and he was superb in the practice games which is why I went with him,” said skipper Dasun Shanaka carrying a visible grimace at the post-match presentation.
Such moments, the failure to close out games, are irrevocable with raw sides. The average age of Sri Lanka’s squad at the time of its announcement was only 26. This can only be ironed out with experience. For that, it is important that there is consistency in Sri Lankan cricket. That is, consistency in performance, consistency in selection, consistency in the important roles within the side, none more important than that of the captain.
Since 2017, Sri Lanka have had 12 captains across the three formats. Arthur is Sri Lanka’s 11th head coach in the last 10 years. There is no word on Arthur yet whose contract ended with Sri Lanka’s World Cup campaign. Given that Sri Lanka have accumulated their best bunch in a long time should allow the two to hold their position.
In their last Super 12 match, against West Indies, Sri Lanka exhibited their true potential. Nissanka and Asalanka carried the team to 189 and the bowlers stepped up against a dominating Caribbean line-up to defend it convincingly. That is how they can play their cricket.
This is certainly the most enjoyable Sri Lankan team to watch since the past few ICC events. It is too early to call it a revival but the 2021 T20 World Cup, despite little to show on the points table, is the first ray of hope to shrug the preceding dark phase as a passing period.