Starting to make winning a habit
We arrived back home in Sri Lanka last weekend from a successful and evenly-contested New Zealand tour with much food for thought as we approach the final few weeks before the World Cup. We had gone into adverse conditions and come away with a draw in each of the three series. There was much to be positive about, but there remains plenty of work to do.
With the World Cup just around the corner there was always going to be a focus on the ODIs, but looking at the completed Test matches, Sri Lanka again showed that the road to consistency is still a long one. We managed to lose the first Test, a game we should have won with our batting, and then in the second Test managed to scrap together a somewhat more creditable batting performance.
That form and pattern continued into the Twenty20 series. One brilliant performance from Sanath [Jayasuriya] carried us to victory in the first game, but then an indifferent batting performance in the second cost us the series - although the bowlers salvaged some sort of pride by putting together a fantastic performance to make it an even contest.
Going into the ODI series we knew we were the superior side on paper, but in reality were playing on even terms because of our inconsistent batting in the Tests and Twenty20 matches. Then in the first ODI we witnessed Sanath's enduring and remarkable ability to destroy bowling attacks in any part of the world.
Upul Tharanga and Sanath are a rare breed of openers who ideally complement each other. Both are explosive while Upul has shown his growing maturity by being so easily able to adjust his game to the run of the game. He understands in what situations to rotate the strike and when to let Sanath face most of the bowling. But he also knows when it is time for him to make a forceful statement of his own.
It has been very encouraging to watch Upul's continued development. He is a talented batsman blessed with natural elegance and timing. Crucially, though, he is a fast learner who does not shy away from hard practice - a rare attribute in someone so young, and it augurs well for his future.
Sanath has discovered a well of youth and he once again amazed everyone with a graphic display of power-hitting combined with explosive timing in the first and fourth ODIs. He has shown that he has not lost the magic touch of being able to single-handedly win matches for Sri Lanka. He has been doing that for so many years and going into the World Cup he will once again be our strongest batting asset.
Sanath may be 37 now but during the past year - indeed throughout his career - he has worked immensely hard to be fit and strong to be injury-free. The hard work he has put into his physical fitness has also enabled him to make a huge impact with his left-arm spin bowling, a huge bonus for us. The fact that he can bowl his full 10 overs has given us the luxury of different combinations, adding an additional bowler or batsman when required.
Even though the first ODI was an emphatic victory for Sri Lanka, the second ODI in Queenstown was again a jittery performance. The wicket was on the slow side and there was a little movement early on. But we sacrificed a position of strength to end up with a total that was 20 runs short of a par total. Even though our bowling and fielding once put us in the hunt, we knew that at the end of the game that the batting lacked the positive decisive thinking necessary to reach the level of consistent run scoring that is required to win matches regularly.
We suffered a further setback in the third ODI where we managed to produce a very ordinary performance. Again, our bowling managed to salvage some grace from the defeat by putting New Zealand under enormous pressure and making them earn every run in a narrow victory.
The most encouraging factor of the entire tour to New Zealand was the manner in which the entire batting side showed immense character and presence of mind to put together a winning total under trying circumstances in the fourth game. We showed we were a batting side capable of performing and delivering under pressure.
Moreover, we showed that it only takes a slight change in attitude for us to become a successful batting unit. It was a case of being positive, of accessing pitch conditions and reading the match conditions, and finally trusting your own ability as a batsman that you have the tools, the shot repertoire, intelligence, character and hunger to score runs every time it is required of you.
Moving forward into the India tour and the Caribbean, it is very important that we continue to work and fine-tune the attributes that we already possess as batsmen to make sure that the processes we practice become instinctive habits in matches.
Our bowling attack throughout the tour put in strong, consistent and match-winning performances. We seem to have found an ideally balanced attack that has accuracy in Chaminda Vaas, sheer pace in the form of Lasith Malinga and variation in Farveez Maharoof, Dilhara Fernando and Ruchira Perera. And, when coupled with the genius of Muralitharan, the bowlers seemed to exude a confidence that only individuals secure in their abilities have.
Malinga has improved phenomenally as an ODI bowler. He always showed promised in the Test arena, as seen in the second Test, but he has managed to convert potential into a match-winning ability in the ODI arena as well. It is always advantageous to possess a true fast bowler in your bowling attack- and if that bowler can bowl consistently in excess of 150kph he becomes an absolute treasure. Lasith has that and more: he is very accurate and has variation in the form of slower balls, bouncers, yorkers, and length balls.
Most importantly, he is blessed with a fearless attitude and character. While his improvement may seem very surprising to people watching from outside in, to us it comes as no surprise because his improvement has been the direct result of hard and deliberate practice at the nets, where he worked closely with Tom Moody and other fast bowlers, as well as of his keenness to do well.
Now we embark on a tour to India where historically we have not performed very well, but this time we travel with more self-knowledge. We also travel with the understanding and belief that we are a progressive side that has overcome huge obstacles to become a cohesive unit that is just starting to make winning a habit.