Sri Lanka should be thankful that their first international outing after the 2015 Cricket World Cup was against Pakistan and not Bangladesh who are currently riding on a crest of a wave by defeating top ODI teams like Pakistan, India and South Africa.
Pakistan’s first ODI series after the World Cup happened to be against Bangladesh and they were stunned to defeat by a 0-3 margin. But they recovered quickly to beat Zimbabwe 3-0 and last Sunday completed a 3-2 win over Sri Lanka, their first in this country in nine years. The victory kept Pakistan’s hopes of qualifying for the ICC Champions trophy 2017 in England alive as they moved past West Indies to eighth slot with a two-point margin (90-88). If no other ODIs take place before September 30 (which is the cut-off date) involving Pakistan and West Indies, the former will qualify for the Champions trophy.
What was eye-catching from Pakistan’s performance was their fielding. Never a team to be praised in that department Pakistan showed a remarkable improvement to cling on to every possible chance that came their way and affect run outs. That kind of fielding lifted the spirits of the bowlers who bowled with unerring accuracy to subside the Lankan batting.
Pakistan like Sri Lanka were also going through a period of rebuilding after the World Cup and their performance in the ODI series with a young team and a young captain (Azhar Ali) at the helm would have done immense good to their cricket.
The key to Pakistan’s success was the leg-spin of Yasir Shah who tantalized the Lankan batsmen with his accuracy and variety. Sri Lanka were able to come to terms with his bowling only in the fifth and final ODI at Hambantota where they ran up their highest total against Pakistan 368-4. Yasir was hit for 73 runs in eight overs without any success, but the revival had come too late for Sri Lanka who had by then lost the series and the win at Hambantota was only of some consolation. Nevertheless the manner in which they won by a margin of 165 runs would have done immense good to their confidence ahead of the two T20 Internationals.
Sri Lanka had a host of problems to overcome during the series – their batsmen never put together big partnerships that was vital to achieve match winning totals, the bowlers never bowled one line and the fielding horrors continued from the World Cup. Sri Lanka needed time to get their act together and by the time they did at Hambantota the series was gone.
What was quite evident at Hambantota was that if the Lankan fielders are accurate with their throws they needn’t rely too much on the bowlers for breakthroughs but get wickets through run outs. Two direct hits accounted for the wickets of Azhar Ali and Sarfraz Ahmed two dangerous batsmen who were well set at the time to launch an attack on the Lankan bowlers.
Those two wickets proved a setback for Pakistan who had to maintain a high run rate of 7.36 runs an over from the onset of their innings if they were to successfully chase down Sri Lanka’s massive score.
The two wins Sri Lanka achieved at Pallekele (2nd ODI) and at Hambantota was largely due to the vibrant batting of Kusal Perera who took the man of the match award in each of those matches with a record equalling half-century and a well-paced century.
Perera showed at Hambantota that he does not have to go helter-skelter at the bowling but by playing it on its merits he can chalk up big scores. If he decides to play in this manner he could be a match-winner for his team with his batting alone.
Many have compared him to the former master blaster Sanath Jayasuriya whom he resembles in most of his strokeplay, but it is best that Perera be left alone to play his own game than make comparisons that could be detrimental to his career.
Apart from Perera the other player who caught the eye was Milinda Siriwardana, another southpaw who showed he had the batting power to come down the order and give the total a late boost which is usually required towards the death end of an innings.
Thisara Perera also began the same way but has not fulfilled the aspirations of many as a fast bowling all-rounder. He has age on his side to work on his game and turn himself into a match-winner which everyone expects him to be.
Siriwardana and Sachith Pathirana were the two new faces the selectors introduced in the series to plug the gaps left by Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. What the series showed is that the batsmen who have filled the positions of the two batting icons have still to prove themselves to become permanent fixtures. The promise is there in Lahiru Thirimanne at no. 3 and Dinesh Chandimal at no. 4 but the runs they make must be for a winning cause and should come on a constant basis.
The bowling also needs rebuilding. Too much emphasis has been weighed on Lasith Malinga and whenever he fails to deliver there is no one who can rise to the occasion. This should not be the case if a team wants to be consistently winning. Malinga has served Sri Lanka cricket well for the past 11 years, being the spearhead of the attack and nearing 300 ODI wickets which he should achieve before he finally quits.
Malinga is nearing the end of his career and it is time that someone should step up and take his place. A lot has been spoken of Dushmantha Chameera, but he has to recover from his side strain and prove his fitness that he can play a full injury free series, and consistently at that.
Even Nuwan Kulasekara who was once the spearhead of the bowling is no longer proving to be a threat in ODI cricket and Sri Lanka will need to look at a replacement for him as well. There are quite a lot of youngsters coming through but they will need time to gain the experience they need to become match winners.
From the spin department Sachitra Senanayake with his remodeled bowling action is going to be around for some time but Sri Lanka will require another frontline spinner to make up for Rangana Herath who would have played his last ODI game. He will be concentrating largely on the longer format (Test cricket) as he battles to keep fit with troublesome knees that needs surgery as his career nears the end.
The presence of Tillakaratne Dilshan in the team is vital for Sri Lanka until the younger batters establish themselves. Dilshan who became only the fourth Sri Lankan batsman out of an all-time list of 11 players to score over 10,000 runs in ODI cricket is the perfect foil to Kusal Perera. He is prepared to play the supporting role to his more aggressive partner and this way they have provided Sri Lankan with starts that has put less pressure on the rest of the batting. Partnerships of 92 and 164 at Pallekele and Hambantota are clear evidence that when they fire Sri Lanka are on course for a win.
Sri Lanka’s next ODI series won’t be until October-November when they play West Indies in three matches at home.