Sri Lanka: Down but Not Out
The men from the Emerald Isle come into The World Cup with a cloud hanging over their heads. Will they be able to rise above their problems to make an impact?
March 17, 1996: The day that David slayed Goliath, the day that boys became men, the day that little Sri Lanka defeated mighty Australia by 7 wickets to lift The World Cup and be crowned Champions of the World!
It was an event that was etched in the memory of everyone present that day. Sri Lanka graduated that day from being just another member to the leader of the pack. Having failed to make any impression at all in the preceding World Cups that they participated in (1975,’79,’83,’87,’92), The Lankans were on a mission. They set the pace in the tournament with their ultra-aggressive style of play and were relentless throughout. If K. Srikkanth was the original master-blaster at the top of the order for India, then Mark Greatbatch of New Zealand emulated him by going ballistic for the time the field restrictions were in place (the first 15 overs of the innings). The Islanders then took it to a whole new level. They had both openers –Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana - going hammer and tongs at the bowling during the first 15 overs while the field restrictions were in play. They absolutely demoralized teams with their display and many a match was literally over within the first 15 overs of the Sri Lankan innings. They absolutely transformed the demands of openers in ODI cricket.
Backed by a strong and steady middle-order, including the legendary Aravinda De Silva, The Lions were able to chase down any total without much fuss. They also had a bunch of spinners to exploit the sub-continent conditions – in the odd occasion that they batted first – and defend any total with aplomb. Captain Arjuna Ranatunga together with coach Dav Whatmore crafted a master plan, which their team executed to perfection. It was indeed Sri Lanka’s greatest cricketing moment.
As defending champions in the ’99 World Cup, they failed to make an impact and were knocked out of the tournament in the group stages itself. Bolstered by the blossoming of young talent in the form of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, and the continued evolution of star players Jayasuriya, Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas, they began to build up a resume of consistency. Semifinalists in the next edition in 2003, they followed that up with consecutive runners-up standings at 2007 and 2011 events. A quarterfinal finish was the best they could afford at the last World Cup in 2015.
However, they have fallen off since then, with the retirement of legends Sangakkara, Jayawardene and Muralitharan; their cricket board and team being rife with corruption and politics. There have been several captaincy changes since 2015 with as many as 6 players holding the reins at various times. Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal, Thisara Perera, Lasith Malinga, Chamara Kapugedara and the current skipper Dimuth Karunaratne have all been in the hot seat in recent times. Such has been the turmoil that the then incumbent Angelo Mathews was sacked as captain after Lanka’s exit from The Asia Cup, just months before the World Cup.
It’s in these tumultuous circumstances that the Sri Lankans enter this World Cup. With the pressure of expectations being at its highest, The Lions will have to be laser-focused if they’re to achieve anything at the tournament. The Lankans possess only a few quality players in all-rounders Angelo Mathews and Thisara Perera, batsmen Kusal Mendis and Kusal Perera and pace bowling legend Lasith Malinga. Nuwan Pradeep, Suranga Lakmal, Jeevan Mendis, Lahiru Thirmanne and skipper Karunaratne are all good players but are unlikely to set the tournament on fire. With the suspension of mystery leg-spinner Akila Dhananjaya, Sri Lanka’s troubles have only been compounded. The retiring Malinga would love to leave his mark on the tournament and it would indeed be wonderful to see the champion bowler get the send-off that he richly deserves. They would be hard pressed to make the last four but with the pressure off them, the men from The Emerald Isle may actually begin to enjoy themselves and play with gay abandon that may yet see them rise like the mythical phoenix.