April 19, 2008

Light at the end of the transit tunnel

Sri Lanka's ODI side is going through a phase of rebuilding, and while the results might not look encouraging, the signs definitely are

That forgotten feeling: the Sri Lankans mob Sanath Jayasuriya after beating Australia in Melbourne this year, one of only eight wins in their last 22 matches © Getty Images

There is no doubt that Sri Lanka's recent one-day form is a source of concern. We have grown accustomed during the past decade to being a competitive international team, but since the World Cup last year the winning habit has proved frustratingly elusive with 12 defeats in 20 results. However, any concern must be tinged with a clear understanding that we are a team in transition.

Sri Lanka's ODI team is going through an important rebuilding phase, and there are bound to be ups and downs. That we are in transition should not be an excuse, nor a reason for complacency, but we all have to be realistic in understanding that it will be difficult to replace some of the stars who have excelled over the years for us.

During the recent series defeat to West Indies we were missing no less than seven senior players from our World Cup campaign. This highlights the extent of the team's redevelopment. The good news, though, is that we are moving in the right direction now. We have a clearer idea about the ideal team structure, and the new players are developing fast. It won't be long before things start clicking again.

Analysing our form over the past few months, the most obvious issue of concern has been the inconsistency of our performances in the first ten to 15 overs, with both bat and ball. The top order has been unable to build long partnerships on a consistent basis. Likewise, with the ball we've been either great or average.

We need the top order to gain greater solidity. I think the middle order, a weakness a while ago, is actually doing a great job at the moment, with Tillakaratne Dilshan in great form and showing clear signs of maturing, Chamara Silva striking the ball well again, and Chamara Kapugedera showing some encouraging signs. They have pulled us out of trouble quite a few times in the recent past.

So we need to keep looking at how we can get the top four to be more productive and reliable. There are a few options on the table in terms of batting order, but we also have to be patient with the likes of Upul Tharanga and Mahela Udawatte. They are both quality young batsmen, both ideally suited to the limited-overs game. Their talent and confidence needs to be carefully nurtured.

Udawatte had an unfortunate start, a duck on debut, but he finished the tour with an impressive innings. I thought it was a gritty knock, and he adjusted his game well to the situation. There is plenty more for him to learn - things like being more adept, rotating the strike, and also developing a better understanding of how he can use his power-hitting to his advantage.

That we are in transition should not be an excuse, nor a reason for complacency, but we all have to be realistic in understanding that it will be difficult to replace some of the stars who have excelled over the years for us

My form was also disappointing during the ODIs in the West Indies. I was keen to make some big runs, so it was very frustrating to not be able to contribute any innings of real substance. Hopefully, this will be just a little blip. I will start working even harder on my game during the next six weeks, thorugh the IPL, and I'm sure I'll be ready for the Asia Cup in June.

In the bowling department, it was always going to be difficult to replace a trio of regulars - Lasith Malinga, Dilhara Fernando and Farveez Maharoof - who have served you so well. Considering this, and the resting of Muttiah Muralitharan, the performance of the bowlers was creditable. It is not easy to bowl these days with 20 overs of Powerplays, but the guys did okay. They dragged us right back in charge in the first ODI, made early incisions despite the low Duckworth-Lewis target in the second, and had us in with a shout in the third.

Out of the bowlers Nuwan Kulasekera was outstanding. Throughout the tour, he worked hard and was right on the money with his accuracy. He sent a strong statement to the team's senior bowlers, and it's great to have him coming through the ranks. Thilan Thushara bowled well in the final ODI, so we clearly have some depth in the fast bowling now.

Ajantha Mendis has settled into international cricket like a natural. To bowl so coolly in Trinidad on debut, and in a tight situation, was a testament to a guy with a strong head. He added something different to the mix, really troubling the West Indies batsmen with his assortment of tricks. He looks a great find, and his arrival was one of the major pluses of the tour.

'Mendis' arrival was one of the major pluses of the tour' © AFP

So despite the fact we lost the series, there were some significant positives. Results are important, especially from a confidence-building perspective, but you also need to look below the surface to see the full picture. As we all know, the margin between success and failure is narrow - were it not for Shivnarine Chanderpaul's last-over brilliance in Trinidad, the series result could have been different.

The key for me, apart from some of the youngsters putting their hands up, is that we are now much clearer about the best combinations as we rebuild with new players. We've tinkered around and tried different things, and in that process we've learned a great deal about what is right for us. This stands us in good stead for the coming year.

One such development has been the growing awareness that our best combination now involves six frontline batsmen, a bowling allrounder, and four bowlers. We need to have five reliable bowling options, plus a part-timer or two as back-up. Filling in the fifth-bowler slot with a batting allrounder is a high-risk strategy these days unless conditions are very bowler-friendly.

In this regard, it was encouraging to see Kaushalya Weeraratne bat sensibly and effectively in the final match. He has worked hard on his game and is a very powerful batsman. He is also mentally tough and very determined, the kind of guy who will run through a brick wall for you. He could be really useful for us in terms of balancing the team, especially once Maharoof, who is also capable of coming in and batting at No. 8, is back.

What we now need to do is win a couple of matches and start building some momentum. The young players coming through have got what is needed, and there is much more clarity in how we can blend everything together. The Asia Cup in June will be a great test and I'm confident we'll be very competitive there.