Sri Lanka need not panic
Sri Lanka's one-day squad travel back home disappointed, and no doubt exhausted, after what has been a long, tough tour. They'll only have a few days to recover before travelling to Bangladesh for another tri-series, but they'll be looking forward to a few days off with their families, some time to reflect on what went wrong and to recharge in time for the next assignment.
There will be some equally disappointed Sri Lanka fans around the world wondering what this means for Sri Lankan cricket. Most importantly, where does this leave the team with regard to the fast-approaching 2011 World Cup? My strong belief is that there is no need to hit the panic button right now. There are some issues to resolve, and areas of concern, but the team is moving forward and developing.
Some perspective is needed. You need to remember that even when they had the Ranatungas, Aravinda de Silvas, Muralis and Vaases in their prime, Sri Lanka have struggled to tame India in India. In fact, this is the same for all visiting teams, with India losing only a handful of home bilateral series in their history. The truth is that playing India at home remains one of the toughest propositions in world cricket.
The captain, players and management team have learnt a great deal over the past few weeks. Like Ian Chappell correctly points out, you actually learn more when you lose, and I have no doubt that the team as a whole will be able to bounce back strongly from this experience. They did the same back in early 2007, after a drubbing in late 2005 in India - Tom Moody's first tour in charge. Going forward, I think Sri Lanka are well placed for the next 12 to 18 months.
The biggest positive of the tour will undoubtedly be that some of the younger brigade - the likes of Chanaka Welegedera, Suraj Randiv and Suranga Lakmal - showed plenty of promise. The other side of the coin was that the experienced core players - the likes of Mahela Jayawardene, Lasith Malinga, Ajantha Mendis and Sanath Jayasuriya - did not perform up to expectations. Sri Lanka need these core players to be confident and in the right frame of mind, as their experience and qualities will help the youngsters mature much faster. The players must not go into survival mode and must keep challenging themselves to keep improving and pushing out of their comfort zones. Sportsmen do go through phases in their careers. At certain times, you do tend to sit back and live in the past. Sri Lanka cannot afford to lose their core players, but neither can their core remain stagnant; they must be the ones driving the team forward.
It's not an excuse, but any post-tour analysis cannot ignore the reality that the team were hit severely by injuries, especially to their bowlers. By the end of the tour, the list of players who had returned home included Thilan Thushara, Dammika Prasad, Muttiah Muralitharan, Dilhara Fernando and Angelo Mathews. Add to that Malinga's unavailability for the first two games, Welegedera's groin injury before the fourth ODI, and the fact that Farveez Maharoof was not available as a replacement due to niggling injuries.
Sri Lanka were forced to dig deep into their back-up resources, and their bowling attack throughout most of the series was extremely inexperienced. The injuries undermined continuity in the team and made on-field strategy extremely difficult. The fact that they still competed so well at times is actually quite remarkable. When the injuries ease up and the selectors are able to select from a fully-fit squad, there will be a good group of players to choose from.
They will, however, need to have a fresh look at the fitness of the players, and at their attitude to injuries. There is a feeling that some of the players are too soft, pulling up sore regularly and not putting their bodies on the line as demanded in international sport. In that regard, the likes of Maharoof and Prasad need to get back to peak physical fitness and play successive games and series.
While Kumar Sangakkara will get flak in the media for losing, I actually thought he got better and better as captain through the series. He came to India still partly in his captaincy honeymoon and was immediately put under huge pressure. He had a bit of a reality check and learnt quickly that sometimes you are just forced to adapt and change even the best-laid plans. The key thing was that he learnt fast and showed strength of character. He looked increasingly calm and in control.
The one suggestion would be to stick to his plans a little longer. Sometimes his thought processes were excellent, but then he chose to change tack a little too hastily. In his defence, though, the bowlers also did not help by consistently executing the plans. If they cannot put the ball in the right areas and bowl to the carefully set fields then the captain's efforts will also be undermined. There was some criticism about him not being attacking enough, but unless the bowlers are delivering the goods there is sometimes not much you can do.
The biggest concern is the fielding. There is no escaping the fact that it is a weakness that must be urgently addressed. The problem, though, is that the squad is not jam-packed with natural fielders. The team management need to work out a plan for urgently lifting standards. I strongly believe that the top fielding teams will have a distinct advantage during the 2011 World Cup, especially in the batting-friendly Indian stadiums.
The flat pitches we've seen this season in India give the bowlers no room to breathe. Par totals have increased in the past few years from 250 to 275, and now to over 300, with the increasing of fielding restrictions from 15 to 20 overs and the improved quality of limited-overs batting. When up against a team with the batting strength of India, you are under huge pressure to produce enormous totals.
So how do you counter the threat of power-packed batting line-ups? Sri Lanka got one part of the puzzle right by attacking the Indian bowlers with equal intent. They did that consistently well (although the batsmen were also guilty of squandering two winning opportunities). But the second part of the puzzle is hitting back with early wickets. You need to go for wickets and grab all the half-chances. That's why the fielding becomes so important. It's essential you convert most of your wicket-taking opportunities.
This is the main challenge for the coming months. Sri Lanka need to build up a bowling unit capable of creating pressure on flat tracks and lift their fielding up to the point where half-chances are routinely snaffled. Sri Lanka have the bowlers who can perform on more bowler-friendly tracks, but they also need strategies in place for India's truer pitches.
I think there is greater clarity now as to what is needed for Sri Lanka to win the World Cup, an achievable objective for what remains an exciting squad.
Russel Arnold played 44 Tests and 180 ODIs for Sri Lanka between 1997 and 2007