India v Sri Lanka, Champions Trophy, semi-final, Cardiff June 20, 2013

Fair result for a middling ODI team

Fight carries Sri Lanka far into tournaments, but they lack the ruthless edge that winning titles requires

Sri Lanka have made for pretty bridesmaids in recent years. They have known, in past campaigns, how to make the most of their assets - the big players have fired and the team has played a very watchable brand of cricket.

This time, they encountered the team of the competition in the semi-finals, which has not always been the case in the past, and were thus relegated one step further in the tournament hierarchy. In the UK, Sri Lanka will be the friends watching jealously as someone else gets to be ogled at for a bit, precede the winner gracefully to the stage, and then cry themselves to sleep wondering when it will ever be their big day.

After the match Angelo Mathews casually threw out the phrase "we choked", which in cricket once carried a taboo to match attitudes towards cannibalism, but is now in vogue for exiting teams like it had been labelled the season's "in" response in Press Conference magazine. Soon after he had uttered the phrase, Mathews backtracked by stating a psychological meltdown did not contribute to their demise, and perhaps he was correct in that revised assessment.

Like South Africa in the first semi-final, Sri Lanka were never in a good enough position to choke. It has been a feature of this campaign, and several before it, that Sri Lanka have played hard, competitive cricket, but have rarely dominated foes as champions do.

The narrow loss to New Zealand in Cardiff may have been a boon to team morale, but a side that folds for 138 on a pitch that warrants a score in excess of 230 are not worthy of taking home a trophy, despite their ability to regroup and surge. The never-say-die spirit in their performance makes them a compelling team to watch, and their group matches provided the most thrills of the Champions Trophy. But a better team would not have allowed such anxiety to creep in.

When Australia were at 192 for 9, chasing 254, Sri Lanka should have brought the field in and pushed hard for the final wicket, but instead they waited for Clint McKay and Xavier Doherty to make the mistake, and gave the opposition a sight of victory they never should have been afforded. Fight carries Sri Lanka far into tournaments, but they lack the ruthless edge that winning titles requires.

As was expected before the competition began, Sri Lanka have also relied heavily on their experienced batsmen, and the remainder of their lengthy batting order have provided nothing more than support. Sri Lanka's transitioning status will make the exit palatable to fans at home, but Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne have far to go before they are capable of consistently carrying ODI innings without the aid of the senior batsmen.

The decision to promote Nuwan Kulasekara against England proved to be a fine one, but Mathews prides himself as a finisher, and a captain more confident in his own ability may not have deferred the task. His final innings, at least, has proved he has not grown averse to pressure. As a tactician, he can perhaps count this tournament as a positive learning experience.

Apart from last year's World Twenty20 final defeat to West Indies, when mental frailty might have played a substantial role, Sri Lanka were outplayed by a stronger opposition in each of the finals before it. In 2007, Australia were even more dominant through their campaign than India have been in this tournament, and an Adam Gilchrist blitz effectively put his side out of Sri Lanka's reach in the first quarter of that match. In 2009, Mohammad Amir and Abul Razzak's early strikes did the same in a World T20 final, and in 2011, MS Dhoni and company dominated Sri Lanka's bowling to make 275 seem a cakewalk. It seems odd that they have not converted one of their six semi-finals positions, but rarely have they seemed likely winners from a tournament's outset.

"It's very tough to go head to head with India," Mathews said. "You need to gear up all the time. You can't really take your foot off the pedal. They've been unbeaten so far and they play a brand of cricket that they're good at."

Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara now have, at most, two more opportunities to taste major limited-overs glory. If either retires without a world title to call his own, it will be among the greater injustices of Sri Lanka's cricket history. For the stalwarts to earn that prize there is much improvement to be made across the team and a killer instinct yet to be acquired. But for now, a semi-final exit is a fair result for a middling ODI team.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Chatty on June 23, 2013, 17:58 GMT

    Let's not try to read to much into this game. SL had really tough batting conditions to cope with - against a strong team like India, that makes all the difference. This loss was due to conditions, nothing else (although India are probably marginally better). But, agree on the point that SL are very competitive but not ruthless. Disagree about 'middling team'. SL are a top limited overs team. It has always been for the last decade and a half.

  • Rafid on June 22, 2013, 11:43 GMT

    i dont think SriLanka is middling ODI team.They have reached finals in the last two major tournaments.It wasnt just their day.thats all.Otherwise they they one of the most consistent team in world cricket.I think most of u will agree with me................

  • Guruprasad on June 22, 2013, 9:48 GMT

    A very well-written article. Some points for SL to ponder: [1]. Angelo Mathews must build HIS team. He must come out of the influence of Mahela and Sanga. He must choose and back players who perform. Even now, it is Mahela who often makes statements to the press. He must earn respect of his team. [2]. Younger players like Chandimal, Thirimanne and even Angelo Mathews must be exposed to difficulties, not protected from them. The policy of Mahela or Sanga shepherding them should be stopped. [3]. SL should give chances to upcoming fast bowlers like Eranga, rather than keep selecting Thissera Parera who is neither fast, nor can swing the ball. [4]. When it comes to India, SL seems to make some silly team selections. By trying to cover for one player, they dilute both batting and bowling. Why was Eranga dropped against India? In fact, India dont like facing tall fast bowlers. [5]. Dhoni's confidence seems to outwit both Mahela and Sanga. SL players have to find a way of dealing with it.

  • Android on June 22, 2013, 8:37 GMT

    sri lanka cricket board and the team management really don't know to pick the team. therw was time they use to be smart enough with team selection specially bowling dept. teams like AUS, SA, NZ, ENG . SL use to pick as many as spinners to rattle them out. and agaist asian teams add more fast bowlers. this is exactly playing to thier weakness. now its compeletly different against india they add. spinners which is thier strength . omit the fast bowlers. and against rest of the asia add fast bowlers which is very easy for them. angelo mathews is never ever be captain. an all rounder cannot become captain. he him self is struggling with injury. missed the wc final 2011. was big blow. due to that 4 changes they made. chandimal talented player. he is not been used in right batting spot. ajatha mendis. still world cricket scared of him. he is out of the picture. if we see on paper SL battting order goes till no 9. all are capeble. adopting is not right. chandimal should start open the batting

  • Dummy4 on June 22, 2013, 6:45 GMT

    I think its a bit of an insult to this talented and successfull team to call them ä "middling"team? They have had the talent and tanacity to make the Semi-Finals 6 time in major world tornaments. . The thing that is always going to trouble SL is their lack of clear and decisive leadership. . Under Mahela and Sanga their tea performances consistent and they looked like a force to be reckoned with. . . It is however the constant and disruptive actions of their inept board that have created problems within the team. Angelo Mathews is a talented player but a HORRIBLE captain. . Its simply ridiculos that in the last 2 years SL has had 4 captains. SL have genuine matching bowlers and batsmen. . . They just need a leader with a cool head to get the job done in the big games.

  • Vinod on June 22, 2013, 6:38 GMT

    It was just one of those days which didnt belong to them! thats it!!!

  • Dummy4 on June 21, 2013, 18:09 GMT

    Mathews captaincy needs get a lot better, in real quick time. Otherwise he should just hand over the reins to Chandimal maybe. He seems so stiff and uptight when he's captaining. I actually think the 3 seniors are to blame for the lack of killer instinct as well. Dilshan was an ordinary captain. Sanga and especially Mahela were great at inspiring their players, but tactically on the field they were always slightly defensive and adopted a wait and see approach which cost us many games. Mathews is doing this on an even greater scale, and to top it off, he doesnt inspire his team like Sanga and Mahela. Doesn't command the same respect either.

  • Prashanth on June 21, 2013, 17:16 GMT

    There's no need to be so frustrated. Whatever SL has done so far is a great achievement in itself....reaching finals/semi-finals on a consistent basis....and you'll win on odd occasions like the WC'96. Lets agree: considering the size of the country, thereby the (limited) talent pool you have...its a great achievement. I wonder if India were of the size of SL, then we would not have been able to give performances that you guys gave so far!

    Even before you become despondent about it, check whether SL has achieved the following to entertain great hopes..

    1. Last time SL won a Test match in India 2. Last time SL won a Test match in Australia 3. Last time SL won a Test match in South Africa 4. Last time SL won a ODI series in India 5. Last time SL won a ODI series in Australia 6. Last time SL won a ODI series in South Africa

    If you have a satisfactory answer to the above questions, then you have every reason to feel sad about yesterday's loss!

  • Mohsin on June 21, 2013, 15:59 GMT

    Sri Lanka could not put a check on Indian batting with their current bowling lineout. They have made the same mistake in the World Cup 2011 Final, also against India. South Africa is the most balanced bowling side in Champion Trophy 2013 unfortunately this balance was badly hurt by the injury of Dale Styne. To put a check on Indian batting a bowling lineout should be like South African bowling line including Dale Styne. Sri Lanka went into the game against India with only Malinga and Herath having bowling strength, leaves a huge bowling gape - opponent see this weakness and they are going to capitalize on it. Sri Lanka is carrying this bowling gape for quite some time they would need to work hard to fill up this gape. In the absence of genuine bowling it is not a bad idea to play with extra al-rounder particularly on the bowling numbers.

  • Srinivas on June 21, 2013, 15:35 GMT

    Forget Sri Lanka trying to find young stars. They don't even have half decent youngsters. Find a couple of youngsters first and leave the talk of young stars. You don't become a star over-night. You've got to do the hard miles, maintaining your personality and individuality. This talk of they found a Sanath, they found an Aravinda and all is just plain ordinary. Sri Lanka's bowling is very ordinary. Malinga is too predictable for Indians. Sri Lanka might win against other teams courtesy Malinga. But against India, Sri Lanka will continue to struggle unless they find decent bowlers and batsmen in the league of Shikhar, Karthik and Kohli. Their bits and pieces youngsters don't bode well for Sri Lanka's future.