Sri Lanka v India, 4th ODI, Colombo August 25, 2008

Sri Lanka in need of a batting revamp

Sri Lanka's batting woes start from the top and that has troubled them for over a year
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All the top order really had to do was to see off India's four key men and attack the fifth, but by the time Yuvraj Singh came on to bowl his part-time spin, Sri Lanka were already deep in the mire © AFP
 

If Sri Lanka are to turn this series around and add to their Test triumph, their much-vaunted batting line-up has to come out of its current trough. On Sunday, for the second game running, India's medium-pace trio of Zaheer Khan, Praveen Kumar and Munaf Patel left the batsmen searching for answers. The script read much the same as in Dambulla, the only difference being that Sri Lanka were chasing under lights.

Mahela Jayawardene has been the first to admit Sri Lanka have not batted well in the last three games. One or two players have had good days but, as a unit, the batting has failed to either put runs on the board for the bowlers to defend, or chase targets. The problem starts at the top and runs right through.

In 24 innings since the World Cup, Sri Lankan openers average 21.23, with only two fifty-plus stands against non-minnow sides (Bangladesh, Zimbabwe). In the last 20 innings, their best start has been 45. During the first 15 overs of these matches, the average runs per wicket has been 22.89, scored at 4.26 runs an over, which converts into an average 15-over score of 64 runs for 2.8 wickets, or effectively 64 for 3. That is just not good enough against top teams.

In this series the preferred openers, Sanath Jayasuriya and Kumar Sangakkara, have put on 18, 4 and 18, not once threatening to bolt out of the stables. Jayasuriya, after his feats in the IPL and Asia Cup, was expected to be a major threat but he has disappointed. Not once has he managed to bat out the Powerplays.

Sangakkara's form has been especially worrying. His scores since being promoted to open the innings in the West Indies earlier this year are 23, 28, 1, 101, 0, 112, 121, 7, 4, 19, 2 and 9. Those three hundreds came in the Asia Cup, two against Bangladesh. The last five scores have come against India. His dismissals by Zaheer Khan in the last two matches were classic examples of failing to cope with precision and subtle inswing. Not a natural opener, Sangakkara has been bumped up to get more time at the crease, and against the Indians it doesn't seem to be working.

When asked, earlier in the series, if Sangakkara was not performing due to the pressure of opening, Jayawardene shot back, "When he is scoring centuries you don't ask these questions. Every batsman has highs and lows. The idea of playing Sangakkara as an opener is to have some senior batsman get more balls to play". However, with two other specialist openers in the squad, Mahela Udawatte and Malinda Warnapura, the time may have come to use one of them. Warnapura scored good runs in the Test series and Udawatte has impressive scores of 73 and 67 in his last two ODIs.

 
 
By sticking in a new opener, Sangakkara could then easily slot back into the No. 3 position. He is a firm believer in orthodoxy and batting for time, and he could be better suited to one-drop, where he has batted for most of his career
 

Sri Lanka's problem is aggravated because their best batsmen traditionally bat at Nos 1, 2 and 3 - a top-order failure invariably puts immense pressure on a brittle middle order. By sticking in a new opener, Sangakkara could then easily slot back into the No. 3 position. He is a firm believer in orthodoxy and batting for time, and he could be better suited to one-drop, where he has batted for most of his career. Jayawardene could then go back to his preferred No. 4 slot. It makes for a more balanced line-up.

Chamara Kapugedera's promotion to No.3 flopped on Sunday but the bigger concern for Sri Lanka is over Chamara Silva, who some locals consider very lucky to be even carrying a bat. He burst onto the scene before the World Cup last year and scored 878 runs at 46.21. His last 11 innings have one fifty; his last three scores read 0, 0, 1. Tillakaratne Dilshan, like Silva, remains a livewire in the field but his batting hasn't clicked. In the last two matches he has attempted to play his shots in desperation and failed.

Given that India only had four specialist bowlers yesterday, a change in strategy could have worked. All the top order really had to do was see off India's four key men and attack the fifth but, by the time Yuvraj Singh came on to bowl his part-time spin, Sri Lanka were already deep in the mire. Dilshan's decision to attack hurt his team all the more. There are murmurs that Thilan Samaraweera, who benefited from a change in approach, will be selected, though he's not in the squad.

The Premadasa pitch did a lot more under lights, but that is not an excuse Jayawardene will give for another sloppy batting display, because he batted superbly for his 94. Apart from Jayawardene, there appeared an element of complacency on the part of seniors, who disregarded what they've urged the younger team-mates to do - stay out there for as long as possible.

Sri Lanka's ODI fortunes have been sliding after darkness descended on that April evening in Barbados during the World Cup final, and they are still searching for the light. Jayawardene spoke in Dambulla about how much of his team's slump since the World Cup final was because of the batting. The biggest challenge for Sri Lanka, before the series slips away, is to try and overcome their jitters. Jayawardene will surely lead from the front, but the harder part is getting his team-mates to follow his lead.

Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo