Sri Lanka, despite its troublesome political history dominated by the turbulence of civil wars, has always portrayed the image of a larger-than-life nation. And their undying spirit has reflected on their cricket time and time again.
They gave the first glimpse of it during their debut World Cup campaign in 1975. Sri Lanka was one of the first two associate nations to feature in a World Cup (along with East Africa) and batted out of their skins in a run chase of 328 against Australia. They fell 52 runs short but for most part of their chase, they were well on course until Jeff Thompson forced Sunil Wettimuny and Duleep Mendis to retire hurt. Next World Cup, they defeated India to become the first ever associate nation to win a World Cup game.
Since then, they won the trophy in 1996, made it to the semifinals in 2003, were runners-up for consecutive editions in 2007 and 2011 and were the quarter-finalists in 2015. The last time they did not make it to the knockouts was in 1999. There was something about Sri Lanka – no matter what happened in between, they would turn up on the big stage.
Sri Lanka came into the tournament winning only 28.2% of their games between the 2015 and 2019 World Cup. Only Oman and the USA had a lower victory percentage in these four years. On the back of that record coming into the Cup, hopes were low among even the most ardent fans – the only silver lining was, it’s the world stage, Lanka will show up.
The team was nowhere close. Their first game of the tournament itself, where they were blown away by the Kiwis gave ominous signs of things to come.
Batting first, Sri Lanka was bowled out within 30 overs, hardly giving them any chance in the contest. That game underlined the batting woes which haunted them throughout the tournament.
Excluding the last game against India, in which Angelo Mathews notched up a hundred, Sri Lanka’s batting was pretty much divided in two parts -- their top three and the rest of the batsmen. After three, their batting looked like an elongated tail collapsing under even miniscule amounts of pressure. Even the number three spot started yielding results only when the 21-year old Avishka Fernando came into the XI.
The glaring gap between the batting average of the top three - Dimuth Karunaratne, Kusal Perera, and Avishka Fernando -- and the others testify to their dependency on the top three.
Sri Lanka was not the only side banking on their top three batsmen to score runs. India had their top three scoring heavily for them, Australia saw Aaron Finch and David Warner score over 1,000 runs and New Zealand had Kane Williamson scoring nearly 30 percent of their runs. But the problem with Sri Lanka was that their top three were not playing enough overs.
Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan/KL Rahul for India, Finch and Warner for Australia and Kane Williamson for New Zealand (143.5 balls per dismissal in the tournament) were guarding their side’s fragile middle-order. Sri Lanka’s top three struggled to keep themselves in the middle-order for long enough.
This hurt them in most of their games. Against New Zealand, they were bowled out in 29.2 overs, against Afghanistan, they were six down in 30 overs, against South Africa they were five at the same point, and against England and India, they were down to four wickets in 30 overs.
There is a dogma of ODI cricket that holds that a side can double its score after the 30th over mark. That is possible only when you have saved wickets for the next 20 overs. Sri Lanka, as a result of their form batsmen not staying long enough, were never in a position to execute that strategy. Karunaratne and Perera, who played every game for Sri Lanka in this dismal campaign, did well but were still at fault for exposing the middle-order.
Sri Lanka’s bowling was as uninspiring as their batting. Their bowling unit took only 34 wickets, the least in the tournament. Sure, they only played seven games, but then their strike-rate was also 48.8 balls per wicket, again the worst in the tournament.
The 35-year old Lasith Malinga, probably the last athlete you would look to for fitness advice, was the highest wicket-taker for the Lankans with 13 scalps. He played a pivotal role in each of Sri Lanka’s three victories -- 3 for 39 against Afghanistan, 4 for 43 against England and 3 for 55 against West Indies. But just like their batting, there was a gap in the bowling as well. Isuru Udana, second in the list of Sri Lanka’s highest wicket-takers in this World Cup, took only six wickets.
Suranga Lakmal came to this competition having played 44 games for Sri Lanka in between 2015 and 2019 World Cup, the most by any individual in the line-up – and failed to pick up a single wicket in the first three games to, deservedly, be benched for the rest of the tournament.
The lack of bowling penetration meant that oppositions could bat them out of the game every single time. Sri Lanka’s economy rate was one of the worse in the tournament.
Sri Lanka ended up at number six on the points table, but so inept were they in all three facets of the game that you could argue that Afghanistan, who finished with the wooden spoon, was competitive in more games.
Give them credit, though, for this: they saved the second half of the World Cup from descending into the intolerable boredom of inconsequential games. Their win over England, the only real upset of the Cup, upended the league table, jeopardized England’s chances of making the last four, and gave Pakistan a way back into a league they seemed to have knocked themselves out of.
Winning three out of seven is almost 50 percent”, said Sri Lankan chief selector Ashantha De Mel, ignoring basic arithmetic and the structure of the tournament while trying to give a positive spin to what was an abysmal campaign.
But for all the spinning, fact remains that Sri Lanka is now faced with the daunting task of rebuilding its team from scratch – a task that begins with first finding a captain.