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Andrew Fidel Fernando
January 14, 2014
At the end of Graham Ford's penultimate training session as coach, the Sri Lanka cricketers worked themselves up to a frenzy in anticipation of a challenge that has brewed for some time. Padded up and wielding willow, physio Steve Mount stepped into one of the practice nets at Sharjah Stadium and took a middle-stump guard with umpire Kumar Sangakkara's assistance.
At the bowler's end, Sri Lanka's smallest player Kaushal Silva marked out a run-up: about a dozen paces for someone of average height, but no less than 20 for him. A wicketkeeper by trade, his task was to dismiss the batsman in three overs. Silva set an imaginary field and ran in hard.
The first ball was defended solidly, but Silva saw enough cause to approach Mount, chest puffed out, malice in his eyes. His team-mates howled in enjoyment as the protagonists hammed up the dramedy. No one remarked Silva would have had to pitch it less than a metre from the bowling crease if he wanted to bounce Mount, perhaps because the joke was a little obvious.
With only few balls to go, Silva struck Mount low on the front pad and went up in raucous appeal. Sangakkara raised his finger, along with several others, and sent Silva into raptures, sprinting up and down the net. Mount asked for a review, but there was not enough evidence in the footage - shot by the team analyst - to overturn the decision.
After the shouts had subsided and his team had cleared out, Ford reflected on the event. "There's been a lot of talk on the bus - every day the challenge has been the main topic. It just shows the lads are in a good place in terms of team spirit and getting on together."
Seemingly not the gregarious type, Ford has nonetheless had much to do with his team's high spirits. He has overseen a year of intensive transition in the top team, and in the first two Tests in the UAE, Sri Lanka's investment in youth has begun to pay dividends. After the third Test, Ford will end his two-year stint with Sri Lanka, handing over to Paul Farbrace.
"From a performance point of view, during my time, we've seen some of these young players really start to put their hands up an make runs. Some of the Test match records for some of the younger players have been great. If look at your Test statistics of Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne, and now we see Kaushal Silva coming into Test cricket - they have been good. Dimuth Karunaratne is developing.
"Also very, very pleasingly, we see some of the seam bowlers really start to construct spells, particularly Test-match spells. With the seam-bowling unit developing, it certainly seems as if things can go well away from home and they can cause problems for opposition on more seamer-friendly wickets. Overall the processes that have been put in place,the gradual improvements and the foundations that have been set should lead to a very exciting 18 months or two years ahead for Sri Lanka cricket.
"At the same time, the old guard have been good. It's not easy to fill the shoes of the retiring greats because they are real talents - special greats. But there's enough young talent within Sri Lanka to ensure that the team will always be a competitive international team."
The team has had largely positive results under Ford, though the 0-3 whitewash in Australia is the conspicuous exception. In 2012, Sri Lanka won their first series in three years, against Pakistan, and have more recently had a 4-1 victory over South Africa in ODIs.
"There have been a lot of satisfying memories," Ford said. "Beating South Africa in a one-day series was something special for me. The World Tweny20 was very special, and the fact that the boys worked and got themselves into such a good position - a lot of that went to plan and it was something to be proud of. Unfortunately it was also a massive disappointment to lose the final, having been so well placed. That's probably the most disappointing time."
Sri Lanka had had a nine-month lay-off from Tests, but have a busier 12 months ahead, with full tours of Bangladesh, England and New Zealand on the horizon. Ford said the Tests in England, in particular, could be a defining series.
"I think that's going to be really exciting for the players. It's going to be a good opportunity to gauge where they're at - especially being able to play in foreign conditions. The Australia tour was a disappointment, but if they can go and play very well in England, which I believe they can, they've got the players to do that. That's going to show just what a capable Test unit they are."
In limited-overs cricket, the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh and World Cup in Australia and New Zealand loom as the greatest challenges. Sri Lanka have made four major tournament finals since 2007, but have not won a trophy.
"I think they are certainly ready for the T20 World Cup, and we've got an outstanding chance of winning that in those conditions," Ford said. "I would say they are not quite ready for the 50-over World Cup yet - got to be realistic about that. There's quite a bit of cricket to be played. There's cricket in England which will help preparations. There's cricket in New Zealand before the World Cup. I would think that with quite a number of the players that would be key to that challenge making progress, by the time the World Cup comes, we should be in a good position."
Ford's next assignment is with Surrey, with whom he begins a three-year stint in February. He did not rule out returning to coach Sri Lanka in future, citing with particular affection the bonds he had formed with the players.
"I can't say enough about the group of players that I've worked with," he said. "I'll have the fondest memories. It's a very sad time for me to be leaving them. It's been very, very special for me. I've coached a lot of teams but this group of players stand out as being absolutely fantastic. It's pretty tough as far as that's concerned. I will sit at home for many years to come thinking about the great players and great people who I've worked with in Sri Lanka."
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets hereFeeds: Andrew Fidel Fernando
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Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala