December 14, 2009

Multi-faceted dilemmas await Sri Lanka

To win the ODIs, the tourists must build on the big pluses of the Twenty20 series, mainly their batting

Sri Lanka showed signs that confidence was seeping back into their game during the recent Twenty20 series, especially in the batting department. They were denied a 2-0 win by a breathtaking cameo from Yuvraj Singh, but they still travel to Rajkot for the start of the ODI series with newfound belief. They now know if they play excellent cricket, their best cricket, they can beat India in India.

Such belief is essential when you are taking on one of the most formidable ODI teams in the world in its own backyard. But after Mohali and Yuvraj's brutal assault, they need no further reminders that there is no leeway with this Indian line-up: they have multiple winners, and when it comes to their batting they can turn it around from almost any stage.

To win the ODIs Sri Lanka must build on the big pluses of the Twenty20 series, mainly their batting, while also raising their standards in the field and standing up to India with the ball. India's batting can be intimidating, so it is essential that Sri Lanka's bowlers are mentally strong, while the fielders seize every chance that comes their way.

The batting of Kumar Sangakkara was outstanding in the Twenty20s. Sri Lanka expect - and need - much from him at No. 3, so it is great that he has clearly arrived on this tour. His innings in Nagpur and Mohali were of the highest class. There was no slogging or reckless risk-taking, just effortless strokeplay. His calm demeanour and precise placement showed how balanced his mind was.

Twenty20 cricket is fast and furious, but 120 balls is actually quite a long time. Certainly there is plenty of time for mistakes. The easiest way to build a big total is for someone in the top order to bat right through the innings. When that person also has a strike-rate of 200, like Sangakkara did in Nagpur, you're all smiles.

Sangakkara made batting easier for the middle order, helping Chamara Kapugedera and Angelo Mathews play with the natural flair and freedom that makes them such dangerous players. Sri Lanka need Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan to play a similar role during the ODI series, providing the rock around which the rest of the order is able to flourish. The batting of the big three will be crucial.

The key to winning the first Twenty20 was a clever spell from Sanath Jayasuriya. He varied his pace and length really well, and with Mathews at the other end was able to stem the run flow temporarily. Those two or three overs in the middle created the jitters that eventually brought the wickets and clinched the game.

In the second game there was a similar scenario building up, and I was surprised that Sangakkara did not try Jayasuriya again. I guess the thinking stemmed from the pre-match plan, which was devised on the assumption of evening dew and the likelihood of seam-friendly conditions - hence the inclusion of Kaushalya Weereratne ahead of Muthumudalige Pushpakumara. However, the dew did not come and the ball didn't move as much as expected. That being the case, it might have been worth trying a slow bowler.

Sri Lanka will also be disappointed with their fielding. In their defence, it was a terrible day for fielding - one of those cold nights when the ball stings painfully and the body does not move smoothly. The lights in Mohali are also low, creating a difficult glare due to the large number of pylons. This probably explains the number of serious misjudgments by players from both sides. Given that the low lights were a predictable handicap for the fielders, it is worth asking whether either team requested any extra practice under the floodlights.

While the dropped catches might to some extent be excused by the lights, the number of missed run-outs was a crime. Sri Lanka matched India's six fumbled catches with a similar number of missed direct hits, many of them at the start of the innings. It cost them dearly, preventing the build-up of pressure and forcing Sri Lanka into a policy of containment that was ultimately overcome by Yuvraj.

Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, Yuvraj recovered from a shocker of a game in Nagpur to celebrate his birthday in style. Right from the start he looked more focused and determined. His execution was brilliant. When he came to the crease the game was very much in the balance but his strong and positive start turned the game emphatically India's way.

Looking back, Sri Lanka might also rue not reaching a 220-run total in Mohali. They were set for it, but after Sangakkara's dismissal the middle order was probably too greedy. Rather than settling for a risk-free 10 to 12 runs per over, Sri Lanka tried to push harder and put India well out of the game.

When you are going well it is easy to get carried away on the bench, but it is often hard for a new batsman to get started. In hindsight, Jayawardene should have played more of a guiding role rather than going full throttle from the start. The middle order could then have batted around him. As it was, wickets tumbled and India clawed their way back.

On the positive side, Dilhara Fernando and Lasith Malinga both bowled well. They handled the situation well and varied their attack cleverly. India clearly targeted Nuwan Kulasekara and Mathews and then opted to play the more dangerous Fernando and Malinga on merit, a smart tactic that paid off. They also responded well to the Sri Lankan tactic of bowling full, a strategy that had worked well in Nagpur.

Looking forward to the World Twenty20 next year in the West Indies, the Sri Lanka line-up looks nicely balanced with the four allrounders. With proper batting down to at least No 8, it gives the team greater depth and lots of bowling options and flexibility in the field. With Farveez Maharoof also hovering on the sidelines, there remains plenty of competition for those allrounder slots.

Sri Lanka will now face some tough selection dilemmas for the one-day series. To start off with, they have to identify Fernando and Malinga as their go-to bowlers. I suspect there is room for only one specialist spinner, which means a tough call between Ajantha Mendis - who I would have gambled on in the first Twenty20 - and Muttiah Muralitharan. If Murali is not 100% fit - he should be okay bowling but might struggle with his fielding - he should not be risked. Kulasekara gets the nod for the final slot based on his recent performances and will have an important role to play at No. 8 as well.

The batting also poses some difficult choices. The management has publicly hinted at a middle-order role for Jayasuriya, designed to exploit the Powerplays. I am not a big fan of this strategy and would prefer to see him at the top of the order, where he can set the tone of the innings. Coming in to exploit the final Powerplay will be difficult and should be the responsibility of the batsmen at the crease rather than a pre-defined Powerplay specialist.

Jayasuriya has clearly slowed down a little, as indicated by the fact that some of the shots that he used to blast over point now go down to third man. But I think he can still make the necessary adjustments to his game to compensate for this, and when you take into account his left-arm spin, he adds more value to the team than any other contender pushing for a place in the team. By playing Jayasuriya at the top you also get the chance to play the best middle order Sri Lanka has: Thilina Kandamby at No. 5, Mathews at No. 6 and Kapugedera at No. 7.

With this line-up, Sri Lanka have a good chance, but their execution must be spot-on at all times. The self-belief must be rock-solid, able to withstand the inevitable batting onslaughts from India's top order. Sri Lanka cannot afford to get intimidated in the field, remembering always that India's aggressive approach is always going to offer opportunities. And if early wickets do fall, Sri Lanka cannot afford to let go for a second. India must be put under pressure at all times.

Russel Arnold played 44 Tests and 180 ODIs for Sri Lanka between 1997 and 2007