New Zealand v Sri Lanka, Champions Trophy, Group A, Cardiff June 8, 2013

Sri Lanka openers reclaim '96 spirit

Tillakaratne Dilshan and Kusal Perera will attempt a breakneck start, but Sri Lanka have not compromised on finishing quality. It is difficult not to draw comparisons with their 1996 World Cup strategy

Sri Lankans can be a strange people. It's the height of impoliteness to decline a meal when visiting friends, but only after you have initially placed a soft refusal. "No, we couldn't possibly bother you, and we've got to run anyway," becomes a four-hour visit that's split in half by the first goodbye, and then a string of secondary farewells that interject conversation over the next two hours. Bus drivers alternate between pressing the accelerator to the floor and slamming on the brakes about a dozen times in 30 seconds. And the bakers have long since ceased to put any fish in the fish buns.

The Sri Lanka attack has been an apt reflection of Sri Lankan weirdness in past years, but ahead of the Champions Trophy, it is the batting strategy that seems odd. Before the tournament began, MS Dhoni had predicted that teams, his included, would seek to conserve wickets against the two new balls, and then cash in on field restrictions later in the innings. Sri Lanka, though, are heading in the opposite direction. Their opening pair of Tillakaratne Dilshan and Kusal Perera possess the highest combined strike-rates for their country. Colombo's Beira Lake will freeze over before Angelo Mathews asks either to rein his game in.

It is difficult not to draw comparisons with Sri Lanka's strategy in the 1996 World Cup. Like Sanath Jayasuriya, Perera is a manufactured opener - he mans the middle order for his domestic side, and that is where he began for Sri Lanka. Also like Jayasuriya, he had been picked for his second-skill (keeping wickets), but he was so impactful down the order, his talent seemed wasted there. Before the tour of Australia was over, he was opening alongside Dilshan, and has since punched out a batting average well over 50 - albeit in only seven matches. Perera's brashness and dominant bottom-hand bear a strong resemblance to the old man as well, though whether his bhangra is quite as good as that of his chief selector, who recently did a season with a dance show, remains to be seen.

"He's very fearless and he hasn't changed anything about the way he plays since he was in the Under-19 teams," Mathews said of Perera. "He wants to take on any bowler that comes his way, and he takes a lot of pressure off Dilshan as well. That combination works for us.

"We'll try to play the way we are capable of playing cricket. We've got a couple of dashing openers at the top. So we are not trying to change too much of them."

Mahela Jayawardene's promotion to no. 3 in the warm-up matches may also convey something of Sri Lanka's plans for the tournament. The earlier Jayawardene has arrived at the crease in the past, the freer his strokemaking has been. In the 1996 World Cup semi-final, the early fall of both openers induced one of the most audacious counterattacks in ODI history from Aravinda de Silva, who struck 66 from 47 to draw the poison from India's attack. If Jayawardene is being handed a similar mandate, then, deliberately or not, Sri Lanka are reclaiming the 1996 spirit that remains the single-most treasured cricket memory for fans, players and administrators in the country.

Like the 1996 team that had Hashan Tillakaratne as low as no. 7, Sri Lanka bat deep in 2013 too. Mathews ordinarily arrives at no.6, but has in the past year been followed by Thisara Perera and Jeevan Mendis, though, if conditions suit, fast-bowling allrounder Dilhara Lokuhettige might be preferred to the latter. Nuwan Kulasekara is in good touch with the bat too, having struck an unbeaten 40 in the warm-up match against West Indies, meaning that although Sri Lanka will attempt a breakneck start, they have not compromised on finishing quality.

"We'll let the openers play how they've been used to playing, and the rest of the few players can consolidate in the middle," Mathews said. "We've got a few power hitters as well at the back end as well, so we've got a pretty balanced team."

Perhaps no Sri Lankan team, no matter how good, can live up to the legend of the 1996 pioneers, of course, given their effect on the nation's cricketing landscape. But out of that World Cup, some fuzzy, oft-invoked notion of a "Sri Lankan brand of cricket" was born, and if this team can rediscover that knack for hyper-aggression, they will make for compelling viewing, win or lose.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on June 9, 2013, 9:39 GMT

    This current Srilankan team looks good on paper but haven't been consistent with their performance. Dilshan, Jaya, Sanga have lost their shine and Malinga is only good for once in every five matches. What Jaya and Kalu did in 1996 WC took everyone by surprise by taking advantage of the field restrictions in the first fifteen overs. But those were different days and subcontinent pitches there used to have little or no seam movement for the fast bowlers. These English pitches are different and batsmen have to apply themselves first before playing their shots. More than anything else, Openers Dilshan and Perera need to be cautious with their approach and make sure they don't loose wicket in the first 6 overs. Instead of attacking the bowling from the beginning, its better to get your feet set and then start pacing the innings.

  • murali on June 9, 2013, 8:01 GMT

    @ kevepere u check srilanak didnt win atleast one test match in India and u won only in 96 wc and some times because of sanath thats it and i think u never won odi series also the best u have done in india is 5-2 in odi series leave out silly t20 and frankly speaking before dhoni india's win on SL turf r not many to say but not as pathetic as Sl in india

  • Chathuranga on June 9, 2013, 7:59 GMT


    Yes you are correct.SL lost 3-0 to Australia in the test series..But what about ODI and T20 series?SL won the T20 series 2-0 and tied the ODI series 2-2...ICC champions trophy is about please post relevant arguments..

  • dominic on June 9, 2013, 6:52 GMT

    these days a lot of indian fans presenting comments about sri lankan cricket. as a very desciplene unit they are playing very good cricket over the years though they didnt hold the big trophys unfortunately captains like mahela and sangakkara is always very tentative as batsmans and captains respectively even you may have seen in the last wc final not leading infront according to the situation like did ranatunga in 1996 a lot of pushing pushing at backfoot mahela , mathews,sangakkara tents to come to forward speacially to spinners look at kusal perera he coaching them selvers. thisara may bat as many overs , eranga bawling and coaching to malinga and kula , we might play with senanayake as meny then we will need a calm and wise captain to lead if they will works with this no doubt they will in to the front ....... go lions ........

  • ttn on June 9, 2013, 6:45 GMT

    @Dulanjan: Precisely Mate, You are spot on.

  • Chamira on June 9, 2013, 6:14 GMT

    He he... Indian fans commented more than Lankans here in this SL page. It shows clearly that how much they watch closely about the progress of the Lankans. If you know what I mean. :D :D

  • keve on June 9, 2013, 5:56 GMT

    If you are an India saying that SL has been always behind India is a big lie. It was after Dhoni's captaincy that India have been clearly better than sl after every bowler gets exposed in the IPL. Sri lanka has been better at ranathunga's time aswel . Half way through mahela's time was also better. Sri lanka can find many unique bowlers where as India cannot. If Indians with the almost 20% of world population , has been only doing well in cricket are really bashing about other smaller countries. Think twice guys , your country is no where near a sporty country. India is behind head to head to WI, AUS, SA , PAK

  • Dummy4 on June 9, 2013, 4:00 GMT

    Sri lanka has a good team and they should reach the semis-from there its anybodys game

  • Anthony on June 8, 2013, 22:06 GMT

    Most cricket fans are not giving Sri Lanka any chance of progressing into the semi-finals. Sadly, I was thinking alike. In recent WC championships Sri Lanka have confounded their critics by reaching four finals - a very creditable record indeed. Yes, we feel sore about not winning a final but how many sides can boast of a record such as ours, at least for consistency. I will be delighted if, win or lose, we continue to provide innovations to the game of Cricket as we have done over the last 17 years. There is one little light at the end of the tunnel as far this last Champions trophy is concerned, given that nobody except hard core loyal supporters are giving us a chance. The white Kookaburra ball is, apparently,not swinging as much as expected in England and this can only help our batsmen against their perceived weakness against the swinging ball. So play your normal game, Kusal Perera & Dilshan, giving SL an explosive start, and the batsmen to follow will do the rest.

  • Gaurav on June 8, 2013, 21:04 GMT

    India WAS better team than Sri Lanka, IS better team than Sri Lanka & WILL always be better team than SL

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