Sri Lanka's fringe players aim to seize opportunity
Victory is almost always the goal in sporting endeavour, but missing key players, and pulled in for a surprise series out of the cold, this Sri Lanka team says they have instead set their sights on the "bigger picture".
The team had been focusing on fitness and strength work since mid-September, with a view to being ready for cricket by November 26, when the ODIs against England are scheduled to begin. But their board jumped in to fill a newly-vacant gap in India's calendar, and the players had little choice but to follow the suits' directives. After five days of skills training, they embark on a tour of India which they feel is about as difficult a limited-overs assignment as a team could undertake.
"A tour of India is a major challenge for any team and for any captain," coach Marvan Atapattu said. "To put huge pressure on ourselves to win is not that wise, at this stage. We know that if everyone is fit, that our World Cup team will be different. So with that in mind, we'll be thinking about who can be a part of the team going forward, and what individual players can get out of it.
"We play every game to win, but with that, we're also looking at the bigger picture. Like what can we expect from the players who are taking part? What is their ability? We have about 20 matches between now and the World Cup. That's about the number of ODI games some teams plays in a year. The challenge is to peak at the right time. Because we have 20 matches to go, we shouldn't become too concerned just yet."
Sri Lanka's frontline bowlers are the major absentees from this tour. Lasith Malinga is recovering from ankle surgery. Rangana Herath, who has had a phenomenal workload this year, is being rested to safeguard his troublesome knees. Ajantha Mendis is being hidden from view, to preserve what remains of his mystery and Sachithra Senanayake is attempting to fight his way back from a ban.
The likes of Suraj Randiv, Seekkuge Prasanna, Lahiru Gamage and Chaturanga de Silva now have the chance to make a World Cup case in their absence, and it is these fringe players who have the most to gain from the series, Atapattu says.
"We're missing our two best bowlers in Rangana and Lasith, but it's a good opportunity to see what the others can do. Not just for the bowlers but the batsmen as well - it's a chance for a lot of them to nail down a permanent place in the team."
Among the batsmen who are in competition for World Cup places are Kusal Perera and Upul Tharanga. Both have been tried in the opening position, opposite Tillakaratne Dilshan, this year, without either making a strong claim. Angelo Mathews said the team was looking to firm up a top-order combination this year, and that Perera and Tharanga would be under the microscope.
"The opening slot is something we'll definitely look at. That's why we're taking three openers on this tour. We need to look at Upul and Kusal. The preparation is not 100%, but we'll try and get our combinations right. That's what we are looking to get out of this tour. There are a few young players, so we will give them opportunities."
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando