Jayawardene targets Australian attack
The triangular series needs a strong Sri Lanka, especially after their slow start to the tournament on Wednesday night in Perth. The much-criticised format finds itself in a strange situation even before the end of the first of the four legs of the league stage. The crowds are coming to Australia games only - the India-Sri Lanka game was watched by fewer than 7000 at the WACA - but it's when India played Sri Lanka that we got the only close international game of the summer, across formats. Then again the close game lacked the quality and intensity Australia have brought. Clearly we need both India and Sri Lanka to run Australia close to prevent the return of the bad old days of the triangular, which starts to feel bloated if one team is significantly more dominant than the others.
Sri Lanka stood up to, and bossed Australia when they last played here, winning their first series in the country, though that was a bilateral. Their chance to do so again arrives on Friday, and the captain Mahela Jayawardene feels they can hurt Australia's bowling. That is an interesting observation considering how well the Australian quicks have bowled to the Indian batsmen all summer. There has been little let-up even though several of the first-choice quicks have not been available because of injuries: Pat Cummins, James Pattinson, Mitchell Johnson and Brett Lee.
Jayawardene, though, thinks his side can push the Australian bowling. "Right now, the bowling probably [the weakness he sees]," Jayawardene said. "[Ryan] Harris has come back after injury, he is a decent bowler, but they are still missing quite a few front-line guys. That's an area we can target."
It was more an honest assessment than any disrespect or an attempt at mental games by Jayawardene. "Overall they are a strong side," he said. "They have got good batting, but with any strong batting line-up we need to pick up wickets. We need to come up with a game plan to do that. Think we did that to a certain extent [against India]. We will try to do the same with Australia as well."
If there is a lesson Sri Lanka can learn from India - and there can't be many from a side that has lost all its games against the hosts so far bar one Twenty20 - is that Australia's batting can be shaky. Often India have been able to get through Australia's top order, but have just as often, and frustratingly, failed to convert them into wins.
Jayawardene realises that. "We have to be smart to beat them," he said. "We know what their strengths are. We know what our strengths are. It's all about how you are going to apply on the day. You get into different situations in a match. Certain situations we didn't handle better than India. That's why they won the game. Against Australia we will be in certain situations again, we have to handle them in a much smarter and better way. Try and be on top of them, and try and finish a game off."
Sri Lanka must be given some elbow room, for the India game was their their first after dramatic turmoil - and we don't quite know if it has ended - in their cricket. The coach and captain have been changed for mysterious reasons, the players haven't been paid for a while, and they have an old hand now taking up captaincy in the interim. Jayawardene said he felt the nerves when he went out for the toss for the first time since he resigned as captain.
"All that [the long-term future] is far ahead," Jayawardene said. "I haven't given it much thought. The decision to take over was a very tough one. The easiest thing for me was to say no. But the situation we are in right now I felt I needed to take that responsibility. And try and do my best and see what happens. Spoke to the usual people that I speak to about the game, they all felt the same way. It took me 24 hours to take the call."
Jayawardene has a completely different team to lead from the one whose reins he relinquished exactly three years back. Back then, he had Muttiah Muralitharan at the height of his powers, and he was used to winning much more than Sri Lanka have managed over the last year.
"I don't want to compare," Jayawardene said. "The team I had was different, but I am trying to do something that is unique. I have still got some really good players. It's how we get combinations, it's how we get different players to identify their roles, and play vital roles in the team. That's what we are trying to do. I was nervous going for the toss, to be honest with you, but after that, once the game started it was fine. Hopefully it will be the same as usual."
Sri Lanka will look for a big improvement from their big three batsmen - Tillakaratne Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara and Jayawardene himself. Lasith Malinga too faces a new challenge with the two-ball rule. The ball hardly gets old nowadays, which combined with the lush outfields makes it difficult for him to get much reverse swing.
Like India, Sri Lanka find themselves out of their comfort zone here in Australia, but if they do overcome the many odds at the WACA on Friday they will leave the tournament in a much healthier shape than now.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo