Tharanga sets the tone
Exactly a year ago Sri Lanka were torn to shreds by a resurgent Indian team in a seven-match ODI series. But now, with similar personnel, they are brimming with confidence and are, quite rightly, regarded as one of the tournament favourites despite their appearance in this pre-qualification stage. Their team is balanced, multi-dimensional, well-drilled, full of talent and vastly experienced. It has been a remarkable turnaround and their have been a variety of reasons, from Tom Moody's meticulous coaching to Mahela Jayawardene's inspired captaincy, from Sanath Jayasuriya's return to full health to the emergence of Lasith Malinga as a one-day force. But one of the important factors has been the blossoming of Upul Tharanga.
Tharanga has had a golden year, notching up four ODI centuries in the last 10 months, a conversion rate that belies his young age. For several years the top three in Sri Lanka's top order has been a revolving door with the likes of Avishka Gunawardene, Saman Jayantha and Jehan Mubarak all tried and discarded as Jayasuriya's opening partner. The instability created was a major contributor to the team's inconsistency. But since being blooded in mid-2005, Tharanga, now just 21, has grown steadily more assured. Since January he has scored 756 runs at 44.47, a prolific run that deservedly prompted his nomination as Emerging Player of the Year in this years ICC awards due to be held later this month.
Tharanga has not only helped ensure solid starts, so crucial to building large totals in one-day cricket, but it has provided Sri Lanka the confidence to re-jig its top order. In particular, Jayawardene has been able to play a more attacking role by being elevated to No. 3. And now, having made a full recovery from a back injury that threatened his career, Marvan Atapattu has been able to adopt a new solidifying role in the order, providing the team with a safety net should early wickets fall, freeing-up the top order to exploit the Power Plays, as they did today with Tharanga and Jayawardene sharing a 63-run stand in 54 balls at the tailend of the fielding restrictions. Tharanga's coming of age leaves Sri Lanka with a settled and well-balanced top six, removing the need for a seventh batter and therefore creating room for greater bowling options.
This afternoon Tharanga anchored the innings, maturely taking centrestage while his more senior colleagues chipped in with useful cameos. He started slowly, cautiously playing himself in while the new ball nipped around and Jayasuriya seized the upperhand with early boundaries. But gradually he grew more aggressive, unveiling his trademark timing through the off-side, an area where he accumulated 60% of his runs. Some of the cover and square drives, off front foot and back, were lordly. While their remain technical wrinkles for him to iron out, especially for sustained success in the Test arena, his fast development and composed temperament mark him out as a star for the future.
Tharanga ensured a perfect start for the Sri Lankans in a game that could so easily have been a banana skin after several months without competitive cricket. They never hit full throttle, but it was a thoroughly professional and clinical performance. The batters all spent valuable time at the crease, building useful partnerships and executing their individual gameplans efficiently: Jayasuriya (31) teed it all off, Jayawardene (35) ramped up the run rate, Sangakkara (22) milked runs quietly during the consolidating middle overs, Atappatu (40) maintained the momentum and looked in fine touch in his return to international cricket after eight months on the sidelines and, finally, Tillakaratne Dilshan (26 not out) finished it off.
The batsmen's business-like endeavours were followed by a sharp performance in the field. The ground fielding was slick and predatory, the fielders regularly hitting the stumps, while the catching was safe. Their quartet of fast bowlers combined well and quickly shook off any rust. Malinga bowled with pace, Vaas was steady, Dilhara Fernando came back well after a wayward start and Farveez Maharoof impressed with some extra bounce. On a spicy well-grassed pitch offering extra assistance in the evening, they were too strong for Bangladesh, who batted creditably without ever threatening Sri Lanka's stiff target. They set themselves high standards now and will surely identify areas for improvement but, all in all, they'll be delighted with a comfortable victory that settled pre-tournament butterflies and provided precious early momentum.
Far tougher encounters lie ahead, but on the evidence of tonight, their eighth consecutive victory, they have every right to feel confident about their chances in this tournament.
Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent