Asia Cup 2014 February 24, 2014

Chance for Sri Lanka to look beyond big three

Karthik Krishnaswamy in Dhaka

On May 14, 1999, Sri Lanka opened the defence of their World Cup title, against England at Lord's. Their top seven, in batting order, went like this: Jayasuriya, Mahanama, Atapattu, Hashan Tillakaratne, de Silva, Ranatunga, Kaluwitharana. No one knew it then, but it would be nearly 15 years before they next lined up for an ODI without Mahela Jayawardene, Tillakaratne Dilshan or Kumar Sangakkara.

On Saturday, against Bangladesh, the three batsmen weren't really missed. Jayawardene hadn't featured in the entire series and in the absence of Dilshan, who had injured his finger, Kusal Perera slammed his first ODI century. Dinesh Chandimal, who took over the rested Sangakkara's wicketkeeping gloves, scored 64 as Sri Lanka completed a comfortable six-wicket win to sweep the series 3-0.

It was a good end to a tour that had contained, across all formats, plenty of glimpses of batting potential for a future without the big three. Chandimal, Kaushal Silva and Kithuruwan Vithanage had scored centuries during the Test series, Ashan Priyanjan made an important 60 in the second ODI and Thisara Perera smashed a 57-ball 80 to dig Sri Lanka out of a hole during the first ODI.

All of this will have given Sri Lanka a not too shabby vision of how things might look in the post-big-three era. With two of them back in the side, it will also give the team the appearance of a solid top order when they open their Asia Cup campaign against Pakistan. A top seven of Kusal Perera, Jayawardene, Sangakkara, Chandimal, Priyanjan, Mathews and Thisara Perera looks like a pretty good mix of talent, experience and recent form.

Scratch beneath the surface, however, and things don't look quite as good. Since the start of 2013, only four Sri Lankan batsmen with 10 or more ODI appearances have averaged over 30. Predictably enough, those four are Sangakkara, Dilshan, Jayawardene and Angelo Mathews.

With their scores in the final ODI against Bangladesh, Perera and Chandimal only bought themselves a bit of breathing room. In a team with a bigger talent pool, they may not have had that chance.

Leading up to his century, Perera had averaged 15.00 over 13 innings leading up to the start of the World T20 in June 2013. He had been dismissed for single-digit scores in nine of those 13 innings. Those aren't the most reassuring numbers for an opener. Chandimal, meanwhile, had come into the match plagued by a very different issue: he had been out in single figures only three times in that period, but had only scored one half-century.

Both will need to build on what they did in their last match. For Sri Lanka's younger batsmen, in general, the Asia Cup could be an important tournament, in the sense of showing them where they stand, in their last major ODI tournament before the World Cup.

Sri Lanka have been in Bangladesh for nearly a month now, and that might give them a small advantage at the start of the tournament. But when their batsmen strap on their pads on Tuesday, they will face a genuinely high-class attack for the first time on this entire trip.

They didn't do too badly when they faced Pakistan in the UAE two months ago, losing 3-2 in a generally high-scoring series. But in the third and fourth ODIs, when the pressure was at its highest, they were bowled out for 213 (chasing 327) and 225. Both times, they were three down for less than 50 against the new ball.

Sri Lanka will face plenty of situations like that, against bowling attacks of similar quality, on their road to the World Cup. Their younger batsmen will need to show they can perform in those situations if they are to lessen the load on the big three. Sangakkara and Jayawardene are 36, and Dilshan is 37. They won't be around forever.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo