December 20, 2009

Sri Lanka in good shape despite injuries

A balanced selection for the second ODI allowed the team to bounce back from the defeat in Rajkot; their debutant bowlers impressed, as did the middle order

No one can complain they were not royally entertained during the first two games of what has the potential to develop into a titanic five-match series. Fears that Sri Lanka might fade after a Test defeat and in the face of Virender Sehwag's explosive pyrotechnics have proved unfounded. Sri Lanka have reacted positively to the challenge, meeting aggression with aggression and showing they are here to fight to the very end.

It is refreshing to see a Sri Lanka team unafraid to make bold decisions. In the past they have often made the mistake of leaning towards the safer options. However, during the past week Kumar Sangakkara has led the team really well. He's looked calm and has been thinking on his feet on the field, trying to counter India's batsmen. Importantly, he's been unafraid to back his young guns in selection. It has been the tonic the team needed.

I felt excited when I heard the team for the second game. Although the strategy nearly worked in the end, I was not in favour of the eight-man batting line-up in Rajkot. The thinking was understandable, with Muttiah Muralitharan and Lasith Malinga both unavailable. On a postcard-sized ground always tipped to produce a run-fest, it was tempting to go with the experience of Sanath Jayasuriya over Ajantha Mendis, and then have extra batting firepower. However, the 21 overs bowled by Jayasuriya, Angelo Mathews, Thilina Kandamby and Tillakaratne Dilshan went for 211 runs. An extra frontline bowler might have made a difference.

So the team for the second game was more balanced, with extra bowling options. This helps because India, especially Sehwag, have been ruthless in their targeting of the weaker links in Sri Lanka's attack. Sehwag tried to take the bowlers out of the game with military intent and that left Sangakkara with serious headaches. So with four frontline bowlers plus Mathews, who was shrewdly given the new ball in Nagpur to try and outmanoeuvre Sehwag, and Dilshan, the attack was stronger.

I also agreed with Thilan Samaraweera's omission from the Nagpur game. He has done really well for Sri Lanka over the past year and is in prime form, but he adds greater value to the team when conditions are more bowler-friendly. On the shirt-front pitches we've seen thus far, you need someone in the middle with greater strike power and Chamara Kapugedera fits the bill nicely. The selection also sharpened up their fielding, which has failed to create pressure for much of the tour, especially in the inner ring.

I was impressed with the two debutants, Suranga Lakmal and Suraj Randiv. Lakmal was raw but bowled with pace and heart. He's got some substance as a quick bowler and will only get better with exposure at this level. Randiv was very impressive. He's matured a lot and grown mentally stronger. He looked calm in the field and held his nerve well, so much so that Sangakkara trusted him with the Powerplay and the final over - a positive decision that paid off. He also look assured with the bat at a critical time, helping ensure Mathews was not forced to take unnecessary risks.

The Sri Lanka batting has obviously been dominated by Dilshan. Sri Lanka have given a free licence to the openers to go after the Indian bowlers. That tactic is paying dividends with Dilshan thriving. The move up the order has let him set the pace of the game. In his older position, in the middle order, his role was dictated by the state of the game but at the top he is freer. Like Jayasuriya for so many years, Dilshan settles after some early boundaries get him on his way.

Both Dilshan and Sehwag have played similar roles, putting their opponents under severe stress, tearing up gameplans and forcing the captains onto the back foot. In Nagpur, Dilshan's brilliant century forced Dhoni to use up the quotas of his best bowlers earlier than he would have liked and left Sri Lanka with the luxury of a Powerplay in the final overs. The main difference between the two Delhi Daredevils team-mates is that Sehwag has greater big-hitting options on the leg-side against the spinners, a limitation that Harbhajan Singh tries to exploit by bowling at Dilshan's pads.

Dilshan's hand-eye coordination has been awesome and he has also been smart, consolidating after getting set. The one criticism of him could be directed at his careless dismissal in the first game, which left Sri Lanka wobbling. Mahela Jayawardene was just new to the crease, Sri Lanka had scored heavily in the Powerplay, and it was Harbhajan's final over. Dilshan did not need to take the risk. However, to his credit, he made amends in Nagpur.

Losing the first game was a real blow. When Sangakkara was dismissed Sri Lanka needed 99 from 80 balls. With the track superb, the boundaries short and outfield fast, it should have been a breeze. Nine times out of 10 you would back yourself to win. However, as the wickets fell, the jitters came, as they often do when you start to see the finish line in a run-chase.

Both Dilshan and Sehwag have played similar roles, putting their opponents under severe stress, tearing up gameplans and forcing the captains onto the back foot. In Nagpur, Dilshan's brilliant century forced MS Dhoni to use up the quotas of his best bowlers earlier than he would have liked

I have no issues with Sri Lanka's decision to take the Powerplay when they did, although it coincided with the fall of wickets. The decision was the right one, with two batsmen well set and the run-rate still high. The problem was the execution. It is crucial in the Powerplays that you get your shot selection right; there is often the temptation to look for too much. You need to know where your hitting zones are and if the ball is not there, you need to make sure you steal a single at least.

There was still a mature stand between Kandamby and Mathews in the middle order, a partnership that shows plenty of promise for the future. They have the temperaments required to finish games, and with more experience they'll start doing that on a regular basis. When you are batting in the middle, you need to be able to hold your nerve because when you start getting near the target it's hard to stop fears creeping in. These two have the heads to cope with this pressure, although in Rajkot it was not to be.

The loss of Mathews for the rest of the series, the latest casualty in a very long list, will be a major blow. He has given the side balance and become a match-winner in the middle order, a trusted go-to man who has been steadily growing in stature. However, Sri Lanka do still have a word-class allrounder in Jayasuriya, who will need to come in for the Cuttack game and make his experience count.

The question will then be how Sri Lanka reorganise their attack without the seam bowling of Mathews. Cuttack might provide something different in terms of pitch conditions, so it will be an interesting selection conundrum. If a three-seamer attack is deemed necessary and an extra seamer is required, Lasith Malinga should be available. Then one of Mendis or Randiv will need to sit out.

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

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