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Andrew Fidel Fernando in Cardiff
June 6, 2013
In each of their recent major-tournament campaigns, Sri Lanka's greatest strength has lain in their attack. Diverse, persistent, occasionally vicious, opposition batsmen have been unsettled by unorthodoxy and discipline in equal parts. As the team prepares for its Champions Trophy opener in Cardiff, though, they will know they are light on mystique in this tournament.
Lasith Malinga's round-arm remains an oddity, but it is hardly unfamiliar now, given the amount of limited-overs cricket he plays around the world. Sachithra Senanayake also has a growing bag of slow-bowling tricks, but the two men Sri Lanka left out - Ajantha Mendis and Akila Dananjaya - are far more enigmatic. The remainder of Sri Lanka's bowling options, from nagging right-arm seamers Angelo Mathews and Thisara Perera, to Rangana Herath's left-arm orthodox, pose challenges opponents have encountered before.
And, by almost any standard, Nuwan Kulasekara is a run-of-the-mill bowler. Rarely exceeding 130kph, with a whippy action and a commitment to line, length and movement above all else, he has often been the dependable, but unremarkable cog in Sri Lanka's attack. While team-mates gambled for wickets, Kulasekara's role was to hold one end down. For a while, he was so good at it - he became the top-ranked ODI bowler in 2008.
In 2013, though, Kulasekara finds his mandate altered significantly. Now a senior in the bowling unit, he has been called on to pick up the slack where Malinga can no longer be as effective. In the years before a new ball was used at each end, Sri Lanka had built a reputation as one of the best death-bowling outfits in the world, thanks to their spearhead's ability to use reverse-swing. But a shift in the rules has brought a change in Malinga's fortunes and even he admits his figures have suffered in the last 18 months. With the ball swinging conventionally for longer, however, the new rule suits Kulasekara's game just fine.
"The rule affects different people in different ways," Kulasekara said. "I think there is more pressure on me now, to get wickets. Lasith is probably the best limited-overs bowler in the world, so if batsmen try to play him safely and attack me, I have a chance to get wickets. My strength is to swing the ball, so I'm expected to get those early breakthroughs."
In the past year, Kulasekara has added an away-seamer to his repertoire, to go with a straighter one and his stock ball, the inswinger. He had been in outstanding form in Australia early in the year, when he annihilated the Australia top order on a hot, muggy Brisbane day, taking 5 for 22, but his record in colder climes has not befit his ability. In five matches in England he only has a single victim to his name, and although he went wicketless in both Sri Lanka's warm-up matches, he remains hopeful he can be as impactful in the Champions Trophy as he has increasingly been at home.
"I haven't been getting the ball out as well as I would have liked, and I'm not at my best when it comes to rhythm. That happens from time to time. We had got slow pitches in Birmingham [in the warm-up games] - the ball didn't swing a lot. Sometimes when it is this cold, it doesn't swing as well, so I haven't been able to make the ball do what I hoped for. We have a few more practice sessions before the tournament, and I'll be working hard with Chaminda Vaas to work those issues out and get back to my top rhythm. He has a lot of experience here, so I will have a good chat to him and try to correct it."
While Kulasekara has failed to find his best in England, Sri Lanka's next-best swing bowler has prospered in the practice matches. Shaminda Eranga, who has previously impressed in England for the A team, took two wickets in each match despite not having the use of the new ball. With another right-arm seamer, Dilhara Lokuhettige, also in the squad, there is heat on Kulasekara to rediscover form quickly, but he has also enjoyed being part of a six-man pace unit on tour - an oddity for a Sri Lankan squad.
"Actually we fast bowlers get together and try to figure out a collective strategy. With the new fielding restrictions, it's not easy to bowl at the end of an innings. We all have different strengths, so we have ideas about what fields should be set and where to bowl, and we're learning from each other and the bowling coach."
Sri Lanka lost both practice matches largely due to the bowlers' indiscipline on flat Edgbaston wickets - even when the batsmen set up a massive total in the first game against India. Sri Lanka do not play any group matches in Birmingham, and Kulasekara feels the match results are not indicative of the team's chances in the tournament.
"Who wins or loses doesn't really have a big effect. It's a practice match so we're changing bowlers around, rather than sticking to a plan, and when our batsmen are going well we retire them and so on. We tried to give everyone a chance, but there will be a big shift in our approach in the actual matches. We learnt a lot from these games, but the results won't mean much."
Kulasekara has been a fixture in Sri Lanka's ODI side, and it is unlikely two poor practice matches will change that, at least as far as their opening game against New Zealand. If the swing that has eluded his fingers thus far can define his cricket again, Sri Lanka will once more feel they have an attack that can carry them far into the tournament, unorthodox or not.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets hereFeeds: Andrew Fidel Fernando
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Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala