Sri Lanka's misfiring middle order has been the cause of most concern in the 2-1 Twenty20 series loss to South Africa, but Tuesday's Man of the match Tillakaratne Dilshan has said the youngsters' failures do not necessarily bode ill for the team's future.
Dilshan's 74 not out from 51, was Sri Lanka's primary propellant in a chase of 164, in which three young players - Kusal Perera, Dinesh Chandimal and Angelo Mathews - failed to make significant contributions again. Kumar Sangakkara had held the chases together in the first two games, but found inadequate support from a frail string of batsmen in the middle order.
Sri Lanka had rested one senior batsman for each of the matches in the series, in an attempt to allow the young players to bat in more familiar positions, but of the four batsmen in their mid-twenties, only Thisara Perera played an innings of note. Thisara, incidentally, had only been granted an extended run in the team during the latter half of Dilshan's year as captain.
"They might not have been successful here, but they have got some important experience from these matches and that will be valuable for their future," Dilshan said of the youngsters. "When I was captain, I brought in young players as well. They didn't start firing straight away, but they are winning matches now.
"We knew before the series that each of us senior batsmen would be sitting out a game. That was a decision taken by the management. The three of us can't play forever. In two or three years we'll be gone. These things will pay off for Sri Lanka in the future."
Dilshan said he also sympathised with the young players, who have proven themselves in domestic cricket, but have not yet fully found their feet in internationals. Dilshan himself had had an average international record for the first half of his career, and it was not until he moved permanently to the position of opener in 2009 that his talent began to be fully realised.
"In our country we don't often see players who come in and immediately start playing well at the international level. You really only see that in places like South Africa, Australia and England. If we had better domestic tournaments, the new players would not feel much of a difference when they get to the international team, but in the current situation there is a big step up. We need to fix that. In other countries that have high-quality replacements, the players below them push the top team really hard as well. But that said, it's time that our youngsters started making use of the opportunities that they have been given."
Sri Lanka have struggled to find an adequate long-term opening partner for Dilshan in the past four years, but when he is paired with Mahela Jayawardene, they have formed a dynamic combination. They adopted a hyper-aggressive approach again on Tuesday evening, and their opening stand of 67 from 5.5 overs set Sri Lanka on course for the victory.
"The start was important, especially when you're chasing 164, it's not easy," Dilshan said. "It's not that South Africa bowled badly. Myself and Mahela know that when we get going, we can put pressure on any attack. We put pressure on their main bowlers and their plans. We know that if someone has to bowl three overs in the first six, they can't bowl in the death. In four overs we took 47 runs, and it worked out for us.
"It's a lot easier for us and a lot harder for them when there is that kind of pressure from both ends. Mahela was hitting the loose balls away really well. We talked to each other before we went out. We knew we would have to take some risks in the Powerplay when chasing a score like this."
Dilshan reined in the big shots during the middle overs, as South Africa made regular breakthroughs. Having needed less than seven an over to win with nine wickets in hand, after the Powerplay, Sri Lanka's slight stagnation put South Africa in the hunt again, but Dilshan said he was never concerned about the game slipping away.
"I wasn't worried during the middle overs, simply because of the quality of the start that we had. They only have one spinner, and I knew the quicks had to come in after that. I knew I could hit the fast bowlers on this pitch - especially with the wind. I didn't go for unnecessary shots in the middle overs. I just took the singles and brought the target a little closer to take the pressure off our younger guys. It was a good team chase in the end."