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If Sri Lanka win both their remaining matches, they are guaranteed a semi-final place. But first, Sri Lanka must sort their muddle in the middle order
Andrew Fidel Fernando
June 12, 2013
The Oval holds a special place in Sri Lanka's cricket history. Still considered barely-better than Test minnows after their World Cup win in 1996, they were granted a one-off Test in England in 1998, and secured what remains their finest-ever away win.
A 16-wicket haul for Muttiah Muralitharan heralded the brightest years of his blinding career, and Sanath Jayasuriya played perhaps his best Test innings - a first innings 213 which set up the victory. Jayasuriya was one of two survivors from that team, when Sri Lanka played their most recent match at The Oval - an ODI in 2011.
Then, Jayasuriya cut his final ball in international cricket to point and began a batting collapse that saw the side succumb to 121 all out, and lose by 108 runs. Meek batting surrenders have since become a worrying feature for Sri Lanka, particularly in ODIs. Since that match, Sri Lanka have been dismissed for less than 200 in 11 matches - over a fifth of their completed ODI count, and their record overall has suffered as a result. Their win-loss ratio of 0.76 in the last three years is significantly worse than the 0.98 ratio they had carved out before their poor run.
Their last innings in Cardiff before the tournament had also been a woeful capitulation and in their last match against New Zealand, Sri Lanka finished with a total that was at least 100 short of what might have been an acceptable total on that pitch. Led by a ferocious Lasith Malinga, the bowlers almost salvaged victory, but as in so many recent matches, batting has been the prime cause for Sri Lanka's downfall.
"The whole batting unit - when it comes to the top seven especially - needs to take responsibility," Sri Lanka captain Angelo Mathews said. "We can't really expect the bowlers to score runs for us. If we actually get to 240 or 250, the bowlers will actually do the job for us. More often than not they have done that."
Sri Lanka's batting misadventures have not been brought on by sustained failures from the top order, but instead by the inability of the men that follow to rebuild on the occasions the top four do not prosper. The team had a mixed ODI run in 2012, but Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan were the heaviest scorers in the year, and maintained averages in excess of 40. It has often been said of recent Sri Lanka sides that they possessed a "soft underbelly", and Nos. 5, 6 and 7 in their batting order are unlikely to inspire much fear among England's bowlers.
Sangakkara, Sri Lanka's best batsman against the moving ball, was predictably the most successful at countering New Zealand's seam bowlers in Cardiff, but despite the team fielding recognised batsmen down to No. 8, he could not find sustained support. The Oval pitch has so far had more bounce than the tracks in Cardiff and Birmingham, and Stuart Broad and James Anderson both enjoyed bowling to Sri Lanka on their last tour of England. The weather is expected to be conducive to swing as well, and if losses are sustained against the new ball, the middle order must respond powerfully if Sri Lanka are to have a future in the competition.
Sri Lanka's own pace attack is capable of exploiting helpful conditions, and with Malinga having hit form, the toss shapes as an important one. Either Shaminda Eranga or Nuwan Kulasekara will share the new ball with Malinga, the former in particular has proved penetrative when the ball has swung.
"I always say Malinga is our premier bowler, but we've got a few others, as well," Mathews said. "We don't really bank on one bowler. We have the likes of Kulasekara, Eranga and Thisara Perera, so we've got those seam options. But I think Malinga is standing out, and he is one of those players who knows exactly what he has to do in these conditions. And also he helps the other bowlers quite a lot, which is very important"
Having fought their way to an abysmal run rate in the nailbiter against New Zealand, anything less than a win against England will make Sri Lanka's progression into the semi-finals almost impossible. But conversely, the no-result in Australia's match against New Zealand has meant that if Sri Lanka win both their remaining matches, they are guaranteed a semi-final place. But first, Sri Lanka must sort their muddle in the middle. Dinesh Chandimal, Lahiru Thirimanne and Mathews himself have got by on the promise of impressive isolated innings so far, but it is time they added fortitude and consistency to Sri Lanka's batting as well.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets hereFeeds: Andrew Fidel Fernando
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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