Good not great
Sri Lankans will look back on 2007 with mixed feelings. It has been a year in which there has been a great deal of hardship for many. The cost of living has surged ever upwards, and the heightened civil war has brought increased suffering, especially for those in the north and east. Cricket, though, as so often seems the case in Sri Lanka, has brought happier memories, with the national team enjoying a largely successful year. The game is not a panacea, but certainly a welcome and much-needed distraction.
It was, however, not an unblemished year for the team. Australia, in both the World Cup and a short Test series, proved their superiority. England's one-day series win, the first in their history on Sri Lankan soil, was a huge disappointment. And more was expected from Sri Lanka in the inaugural World Twenty20. Those aside, Sri Lanka played some exceptional cricket, the highlight of which was their spirited World Cup campaign and the recent Test series with England, which has propelled Mahela Jayawardene's team up into No 3 position in the ICC Test Rankings.
In statistical terms, the year was mixed. Sri Lanka won two out of the three Test series they played, against Bangladesh (3-0), Australia (0-2), and England (1-0). In ODIs they had a 59% win ratio from the 29 matches that were played, losing their pre-World Cup series to India, a post-World Cup series in Abu Dhabi against Pakistan (albeit with a weakened team), and the England series. Those defeats were offset by the quality of their World Cup campaign.
The star performers were the old hands, Muttiah Muralitharan with the ball, who claimed 49 wickets in eight Tests at 22.30 - although, by his own sky-high standards, an average of 6.13 wickets per Test will be have been slightly disappointing. Mahela Jayawardene was the most consistent batsman in both forms of the game, scoring five Test hundreds and two ODI ones as he piled up 982 runs at 98.20 in Tests and 1089 runs at 37.55 in ODIs. In addition, his leadership continued to be assured, aggressive and intelligent.
Kumar Sangakkara's Test performances were also brilliant - 968 runs at 138.28 with four big hundreds - but his ODI productivity was more modest - 758 runs at 31.58. The other standout performer was Chamara Silva in one-day cricket. His Test average was poor - 235 runs at 21.36 - but he excelled in limited-overs cricket after forcing himself into the team in India prior to the World Cup, scoring 878 runs at 46.21.
It was also a year of transition - and, as ever for Sri Lanka, a decent dollop of controversy. Three stalwarts bade farewell: Marvan Atapattu and Russel Arnold from all international cricket, Sanath Jayasuriya from Test cricket. Their departure has left a big hole, but the time had come to look to the future, and finally, after much uncertainty, the likes of Michael Vandort (487 runs at 44.27 in Tests) and Upul Tharanga (38 runs at 12.66 in Tests) have an opportunity to cement their places as the new openers. Vandort is slowly maturing into a Test batsman; Tharanga still needs to work hard on his game, and 2008 will be crucial.
|The chief concern is the second spinner during home series. The management would dearly love Maharoof's batting to development faster so that he could bat reliably at seven, allowing for five bowlers and a properly balanced attack. Prasanna Jayawardene's excellent year behind the stumps and with the bat has made this kind of combination theoretically possible|
The manner of Atapattu's departure, though, was sad. Over the years he was a great servant of the game in Sri Lanka - an opener of the highest calibre, a good captain who laid the foundations for the current team, and a player who always spoke frankly and honestly. The decision to leave him out of the first-choice playing XI in the World Cup was the toughest of the Jayawardene-Tom Moody tenure. But it was based on sound logic, considering both Tharanga (as Jayasuriya's opening partner) and Silva (as the new No. 5) were both in form. Unfortunately, Atapattu was never able to accept the rationale and fumed for months afterwards.
Atapattu should be playing Test cricket now. The plan was always for him to concentrate on Test cricket and for Jayasuriya to concentrate on ODIs. This was entirely sensible. But Atapattu's open dislike and mistrust of Asantha de Mel, the chairman of selectors, prevented this. Atapattu sulked in England playing for Lashings CC, while neither de Mel nor Sri Lanka Cricket made no obvious attempt to patch things up. The end result was a selection farce leading into the two-match Australia tour. In the end, it probably made little difference to the end result, but it was still an unwelcome distraction.
The year also saw the departure of Tom Moody, Trevor Penney (fielding coach) and CJ Clarke (trainer), arguably the best management team Sri Lanka has ever had. The new team - Trevor Bayliss, Paul Farbrace (assistant coach), Jade Roberts (trainer), and Tommy Simsek (physiotherapist), who was also part of the Moody team - are still settling in and it is too early to pass judgment. The early signs are encouraging, although it must be said that following in the footsteps of Moody, who was authoritative enough to take strong stands, and also nuanced enough to cope with the political complexities of cricket in Sri Lanka, is not easy.
Their job is now to help Sri Lanka through this mini-transition phase. Aside from the establishment of a new opening combination, at least one middle-order slot is up for grabs. Tillakaratne Dilshan's comeback was gutsy and encouraging, but he must be more consistent and reliable. Chamara Silva's place is no longer guaranteed, and Jehan Mubarak will have to concentrate on ODI cricket for a while longer.
The likes of Chamara Kapugedera and Thilan Samaraweera - who was harshly axed after just one game in Australia - are both pushing hard for inclusion. In the last series it was Jayawardene and Sangakkara who dominated the batting, but they cannot be expected to do so all the time, so others must put up their hands in 2008. As Sri Lanka found out against Australia, they lack the depth of quality they need in their top order to be a consistent force.
The bowlers all did well in 2007. Great credit is due to Simsek and the trainers for keeping them all fit. Out of the year's eight tests, Dilhara Fernando and Lasith Malinga missed only one each due to injury. Chaminda Vaas and Murali were available for all matches. The wickets were also shared around: Murali (49), Malinga (20), Vaas (18), Fernando (15). With Farveez Maharoof showing dramatic improvement in 2007, and Chanaka Welegedara impressing on debut, there is back-up too.
The chief concern is the second spinner during home series. The management would dearly love Maharoof's batting to development faster so that he could bat reliably at seven, allowing for five bowlers and a properly balanced attack. Prasanna Jayawardene's excellent year behind the stumps and with the bat has made this kind of combination theoretically possible, allowing for proper spin back-up for Murali. The question remains, though, as to whether Malinga Bandara has the weaponry to be successful in Test cricket.
Away from the international arena there has been plenty of action within the cricket board. The good news is that the arrival of Sidath Wettimuny into the interim committee appears to have helped push through a proper Provincial Tournament. This five-team tournament has the potential to close the gap in quality between club and international cricket, provided it is managed properly. Patience will also be required to allow for team identities to form and player loyalties to strengthen.
Unfortunately, the interim committee has also walked into fresh controversy following the recent revelations that the television deal with Ten Sports, due to expire in 2008, was extended to the end of 2011 by the board chairman Jayantha Dharmadasa without tendering. It is not yet clear whether there will be any fallout from this, but if true, the neglect of proper process and lack of transparency is a very serious concern.
If Sri Lanka's cricket is to be run by a government-appointed interim committee, then there still has to be proper accountability. The appointment of Arjuna Ranatunga as chairman of the committee yesterday in place of Dharmadasa could well mark the beginning of a new era.
The coming year will be a crucial stepping stone to the future. The CB Series in Australia provides a real test for the one-day team, and then full tours with West Indies and India follow. There is an Asia Cup and Champions Trophy, too, plus another series with Bangladesh at the tail-end of the year. On the basis of 2007, and especially the recent England tour, Sri Lanka can certainly look forward with confidence.
Charlie Austin is Sri Lanka editor of Cricinfo