Sri Lanka look to fine-tune rusty attack
At the top level, Sri Lanka's cricket travels in waves that crescendo every four years: at the World Cup. Since 2012, there has been busy talk of building for the next event - of putting in place tested personnel, fitted with a strategy that matches players' strengths, and the conditions.
Many months of success in 2014 suggested Sri Lanka were on course for another good campaign, but their plans have now run aground in New Zealand. The opening position was unsteady until mid-way through January, and has only now been firmed up, with Lahiru Thirimanne's promotion. But this has in turn made the middle order flimsier. Sri Lanka's greatest concern, however, is the attack, which had been the cornerstone of so many impressive major-tournament campaigns.
Nuwan Kulasekara, who was Sri Lanka's most consistent ODI bowler until recently, struck a wobbly patch of form in the middle of 2014, and is yet to recover the accuracy he had lost. Sachithra Senanayake had his action pulled up and remodeled, and Lasith Malinga underwent surgery on his ankle.
Now at the tournament Sri Lanka want to win most, the attack is no longer as menacing or miserly as they used to be not so long ago. Former fast bowler Rumesh Ratnayake has been drafted in as a coaching consultant to help remedy this dip in form, and he feels the attack is only one match away from a change in results.
"What I first did with them was to sit and discuss what I saw in them," he said. "They have skill, but the execution is the area that was not that great. That can happen to any bowler, and they are going through a period of that.
"Their decision-making was an area that we stressed on, and that was evident also in the first match of the tournament. What we needed is one good match for the boys to get that confidence. We have to make it happen. Everybody is aware that they have skill, and that's why we're here."
Though Sri Lanka's batting lineup has changed over the past 12 months, the attack that led Sri Lanka to 19 limited-overs victories in 22 matches between last February and July, has largely remained unchanged. The same bowlers that muzzled everyone from MS Dhoni to Marlon Samuels at last year's World T20, have been traveling for more than eight an over in the last 15 overs since arriving in New Zealand.
"At this level, it's mostly about reminding them about how good they were, and of their best performances," Ratnayake said. "But if you're only reminding them of their best performances, and forgetting their weaknesses, that's also wrong. You must say, 'this can also happen' and get them ready for that weakness. If you have three skills, can you back those three up with execution? If you can, then the decision making will automatically come."
Causing most worry is Malinga, who was not only down on pace since his return from injury, but also visibly out of shape. The precision of his yorkers had made him perhaps the best contemporary death bowler, but he did not find the blockhole often enough on his return to competitive cricket, in the tournament opener. His figures in that match were 0 for 84, from 10 overs. His understanding of the game, however, remains as fine as ever, Ratnayake said.
"If you speak to a guy like Malinga, and you get a lot of unbelievably intelligent information - where you wouldn't have got it off a book," Ratnayake said. "I'm saying to them, for example: bowl six yorkers in a row, or four good balls in the slot where we want. Consistency is the thing we're trying to instill. Confidence is also important. When one four happens, we don't have to panic. We have to allow a little bit of time for things to settle down. You don't just run in and bowl. You have to think."
Sri Lanka have tried the wide-yorker ploy that brought them World T20 success several times in New Zealand, but the bowlers continued to bleed runs at the death. Ratnayake said part of the challenge in restoring the attack, was to have bowlers thinking more flexibly on the field.
"I wanted them to come out with ideas," he said. "They have come out with plans saying, 'If I bowl this ball and he hits me here, I have a Plan B.' We've spoken of that, and even spoken of a Plan C. Some of them have come out of their shells and done that. They might look very timid and quiet, but when you talk to them about planning, we get a good enough input. They know what they need to be doing if it goes wrong."
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando