Sri Lanka openers reclaim '96 spirit
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