“There is a clear weakness against spin and that needs to be addressed as a matter of priority,” says chief selector Kapila Wijegunawardene (right)
  • Pakistan series highlights lots of flaws inherent in the side
  • Mahela and Sanga’s absence exposes weakness against spinners
  • A lot of senior players didn’t do justice to their talent

by Sa’adi Thawfeeq

Chief selector Kapila Wijegunawardene said that the Test and One-Day International series against Pakistan has given the national selection committee the opportunity to assess where Sri Lanka stands in terms of overall requirement of the national side.

Sri Lanka lost the Test series 2-1 and the five-match ODI series 3-1 with one to play at Hambantota on Sunday.

“We came out of the World Cup where two of our main players retired – Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. In the ODI format every country plans from tournament to tournament in a four-year cycle to prepare the team for the next World Cup,” Wijegunawardene told The Nation.

“We were very clear in our minds that we didn’t want to bring too many changes post Mahela post Sanga. We thought we’ll keep faith with the other seniors in the side. As such we had only two rookie players included in the squad for the ODIs – Milinda Siriwardana and Sachith Pathirana basically to fill Mahela’s and Sanga’s positions.

“Judging by the performances, which was roller coaster to say the least it has highlighted a lot of weaknesses that we need to fix in the side in terms of batting, bowling and fielding. We have taken very clear note on those lines and now we know what manoeuvers we need to make going forward,” he said.

Wijegunawardene said the objective for the national side is to try and win every match they play and that objective won’t change. However he pointed out that every team goes through a transitional period where you will have temporary setbacks that is common to every cricket nation and which every leading team has to face.

“We have to acknowledge that we had a very good run where we were in the forefront of most formats and this is the time where some of the players have retired, some have aged which is common to all of us and their reflexes have slowed down,” said Wijegunawardene. “We are taking stock of all that and we will gradually bring in what changes that need to be made while not compromising the need to win.

“As national selectors we are naturally disappointed like every other cricket fan in this country by the ODI result. This is not the result we anticipated based on the team we had picked.

“Looking at it very objectively where we were outplayed was in all three departments. The Pakistanis batted, bowled and fielded better. In the past we have been far ahead of them where fielding is concerned. One reason for that I feel is the youth that has been inducted into the Pakistan side.

“This is the side that lost to Bangladesh 0-3 with a much stronger team. It’s very clear that they are also in a rebuilding phase bringing in youngsters and they are just starting to see results. Sri Lanka needs to go through the same process there’s no other way. Youth doesn’t mature overnight they will face their incubation period where you need to nurture the youngsters, work closely with them, give them the confidence and create the right environment which we plan to do.”

The Pakistan series was the first that Sri Lanka played after the World Cup and it has no doubt highlighted a lot of weaknesses inherent in the side that naturally needs to get fixed.

Observing the areas where Sri Lanka faulted Wijegunawardene, a right-arm fast-medium bowler who played 26 ODIs and two Tests in a four-year span from 1988 said, “A lot of the senior players didn’t do justice to the talent they got. Nobody’s going to dispute that – the players will be the first to admit it. I felt that we were not doing the basics right in the bowling department we were not bowling in the right channels and not hitting the right lengths.

“The one-day format is a very simple formula about bowling dot balls and building pressure, bowling wicket to wicket so you increase your wicket-taking opportunities which I felt we failed to do because we were constantly off target. That naturally reflected in the results we got.”

On the fielding aspect the chief selector said, “The most important requirement for good fielding is your level of fitness. Fitness level is an area which we need to improve tremendously. With the new trainer working with the boys they are working on individual fitness schedules and every player will be given targets to hit on a periodically basis.

“Unless you keep fit at this level you are not going to perform to your potential. Not keeping fit is letting your side down really. Every player who has the privilege of being in the side must understand they need to respect the rest of the team, they are professionals and they need to be in prime fitness to ensure they deliver and meet the objectives of the team.”

From the batting perspective Wijegunawardene said the series clearly revealed (‘to our detriment’) the batsmen’s weakness against playing spin.

“When Sanga and Mahela were in the side they were such good players of spin the weaknesses that were inherent in the team were not exposed. These are not weaknesses that had developed overnight the inherent weaknesses were not exposed because we had two key batsmen upfront taking on the role of countering spin bowling,” said Wijegunawardene.

“Otherwise how do you account for a leg-spinner coming on and taking 23 wickets in the Test series and career best figures in ODI cricket?  This is clearly an area to be addressed by the coaching team on the batting. There is a clear weakness against spin and that needs to be addressed as a matter of priority.

“In today’s game where every move you make is anaylsed scientifically I won’t be surprised if every team is going to include a leg-spinner in their side. Under normal circumstances you find a leg-spinner bothering a right-hander that’s the norm. But in our case we have a whole line up of left-handers whom this guy (Yasir Shah) was bothering as a matter of routine.

“Our players need to work on that seriously.  In the past batsmen like Arjuna (Ranatunga) and Aravinda (de Silva) never allowed spinners to dominate the way this one spinner dominated us. More embarrassing was the fact that even a part time leg-spinner (Azhar Ali) came and got two wickets against us. These are factors we need to pay attention to and take remedial action,” he said.

“Now that we have taken stock of exactly where we are, to be honest we are not on a very good plateau at the moment we need to raise our game several notches higher. I am convinced that we have the talent. There has to be induction of youth especially in the ODI format and in Tests and we need to pick the right combinations and make sure that we improve the skills levels of our individual players particularly the batsmen.

“The whole focus in ODIs will be to get a balanced team for the next World Cup, the World T20 will be coming up next year and Test cricket we need to blood youngsters and prepare a team for the next 10-12 years.”

The pitches produced for the ODI matches were all flat ones in favour of the batsmen and Wijegunawardene said, “That was part of the plan because ODIs have to be won by the batsmen. It’s not a bowlers’ game, it’s a format for entertainment and people come to watch batsmen. Our batsmen play better when the ball comes on because they are all stroke makers and they play fast bowling very well. These are wickets of the calibre we encounter when we go abroad.”