Monday, August 18, 2008

Middle order needs to fire for Sri Lanka

In the months after the World Cup, Sri Lankan cricket went through a transition of sorts, as experienced cricketers like Marvan Atapattu and Russell Arnold retired and younger talent was brought in. All throughout Mahela Jayawardene called for the need to give the newer players more time and for the seniors to take up more responsibility.

Now as the World Cup finalists they currently sit at No. 7 in the ICC ratings for one-day international sides, having won two out of six series. Immediately after the World Cup, Sri Lanka lost to Pakistan 2-1 in Abu Dhabi. A 3-0 whitewash of Bangladesh was followed by a rare home loss, and that to England, hardly the best ODI side in the game. After a poor CB Series in Australia Sri Lanka were beaten 2-0 by West Indies, ranked eighth in the world. It really couldn't get much worse than that.

The most consistent problem was a deficiency in the batting department, which failed to function as a cohesive unit. Sanath Jayasuriya blew hot and cold, Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara sparkled intermittently, and a lack of fire power in the middle and lower order hurt Sri Lanka. The middle order revolved around a mix of bits-and-pieces cricketers and one-day specialists, and no one stood out. One or two batsmen performed in each game, but that is rarely enough.

In the last year Tillakaratne Dilshan averaged 29.76; Chamara Silva 24.42; Chamara Kapugedera 33.07; Maharoof, restricted to seven games due to injury, averaged 11.25. Chaminda Vaas failed to chip in with runs and the most successful lower-order batsman was Nuwan Kulasekara, who averaged 26.75. In one-day cricket you need runs on the board. Sri Lanka failed to always put those up.

Like all sides searching for a settled team, they also experimented. Upul Tharanga and Mahela Udawatte opened the batting at times, with mixed success. In Pakistan Sri Lanka bumped Sangakkara up to open the innings because it was felt they needed another bowler. Kapugedera was shuffled around and injury to Maharoof only compounded their woes.

Sri Lanka failed to bat well consistently against England at home and in Australia, where they only won two games. The 3-1 scoreline against England should have been the wake-up call to spur them into a period of intense development and progress as a team, but the CB Series was equally disappointing. Their highest total was 238 and the batsmen averaged just 22.44 runs per wicket - that doesn't win you games. Sri Lanka failed to get big knocks from Sanath Jayasuriya and Sangakkara, like they played in last two games of the Asia Cup, and that has a huge effect on their performance.

In the few games of the CB Series that two of the top three got starts, the rest were unable to work a way out when the opposition tightened its line. In a sense the senior Sri Lankan batsmen ignored the very lesson they had been stressing to their younger team-mates, of staying out in the middle as long as possible.

Jayawardene admitted a few personnel changes also attributed to this dip in form, but he gave no excuses. "We did not consistently lift our standards since the World Cup," he said. "We certainly are not there but we're maintaining it. We turned it around a bit in the Asia Cup, where we were consistent with the bat, ball and on the field. That's the toughest thing for international sides."

In a sense the Asia Cup marked a revival. Sri Lanka batted consistently well, but there was one massive factor - Ajantha Mendis. His success, come in such a short period, gives them the option - momentarily - of scrutinising their batting combination.

Jayasuriya's return, after a terrific Indian Premier League and his Asia Cup final century, makes a massive difference to Sri Lanka, as he is the only real power player they have. A well-rested Jayasuriya can offer dimension to Sri Lanka's unit, but the fact is that plenty of responsibility falls on Jayawardene and Sangakkara. The middle order needs to come good.

Sri Lanka have been able to fall back on a bowling unit which picked up a lot of wickets recently, but Jayawardene wants to move on from what happened in Australia. He recognised Mendis as a trump card, an attacking option, but called on others to contribute. Sri Lanka need to re-learn a lesson taught to them before the World Cup - when you cruise, you often cruise downwards.


Watch out for

Sanath Jayasuriya: The last time he played India, Jayasuriya cracked a match-winning 125, his sixth ODI hundred against them. Jayasuriya relishes playing the Indians - no one has scored as many runs against them as he has - and even more so at home, where he averages 46.44 at a strike-rate of exactly a run a ball. His record in Dambulla isn't as impressive - an average of 26.23, with just one half-century in 15 innings - but against India he'll fancy his chances of turning that around.
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