Sri Lanka aim to settle middle-order slots
Batsmen are a pampered lot in one-day cricket with Powerplays, powerful bats and placid pitches making you wonder why anyone chooses to become a bowler. Batting in the lower middle-order, though, requires a diverse set of skills not too many players possess, making it a problem area for several teams, including Sri Lanka.
On flat tracks, you get the crumbs after the top order has feasted. On tougher surfaces, you have to firefight, often with the tail, if the big names who came in earlier flop. The spotlight usually falls on you in tight chases, when your nerves and temperament will be tested. This need to be free-swinging from the outset at times, to show a watertight defensive technique at others, is what makes No. 6 and 7 in the batting order such a tricky proposition.
Sri Lanka have more or less penciled in their top five for the World Cup, but it's the two spots below that is giving them a headache. Much faith has been shown in Chamara Kapugedera, who has certainly shown the ability to hit big but is yet to show the reliability that will assure him a permanent place. An average of 23 after plenty of matches gives him his share of critics, as does the lack of a century.
Then there's Thilan Samaraweera, whose Test average is nearly twice that of his one-day mean, showing which format he is more comfortable with. While his solidity was never in doubt, he has lately shown glimpses of the inventiveness needed to be successful lower down the order. His unbeaten 35 against New Zealand had him shuffling around the crease to throw bowlers off their line, and there was even a paddle scoop for four off quick bowler Tim Southee. After resurrecting his ODI career 12 months ago, he's hoping to play his first World Cup more than 12 years after his debut.
Unlike Samaraweera, Chamara Silva manages to get on the selectors radar when there's a World Cup around. Three months before the 2007 edition, he returned to the Sri Lankan team after a four-year gap, and went on win a ticket to the Caribbean. Again, after playing only one ODI in nearly two years, he's back in the side and has strengthened his case with a fluent and enterprising unbeaten 41 in the rain-hit game against New Zealand.
"It was a big game for Silva, he hasn't played with us for a while, looks like a World Cup specialist," Mahela Jayawardene said on Friday. "He looked very confident, he has got a lot of shots, once he got settled in he was brilliant against both spin and pace."
Two other contenders who have really impressed Sri Lankan captain Kumar Sangakkara are Dinesh Chandimal and Jeevan Mendis, both of whom got their international break when several seniors were rested for the Zimbabwe tri-series earlier this year. Chandimal, a 20-year-old wicketkeeper batsman, blasted a match-winning century in only his second ODI innings, against India batting up the order, and is currently hitting the headlines for a nine-hour double hundred against South Africa A at the SSC.
"Chandimal is one of the best young cricketers that we have," Sangakkara said. "He has done great work in Zimbabwe, he has scored an international century, he's an exciting player, we have to consider him very quickly, I think he's got the ability to handle Australia (during the limited-overs tour in November)."
Mendis, 27, is a legspinning allrounder who had a decent run in Zimbabwe and could prove handy whenever Sri Lanka go in with only one specialist spinner. "Mendis will also be very useful with his legspin and batting ability," Sangakkara said. "Going forward for the World Cup, two guys we need to make it to the side is Jeevan Mendis and Dinesh Chandimal, I think if we have those two guys, our batting line-up is solid."
Completing the scramble for middle-order places are Thilina Kandamby - out of favour after 11 innings without a half-century - and Thisara Perera, a 21-year-old quick who can provide the batting overdrive needed late in the innings.
With only eight ODIs lined up before the World Cup, auditioning chances are running out. "We try and give everyone a go but we have to make a really quick decision," Sangakkara said. That decision could well prove pivotal to Sri Lanka's campaign next year.
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo