Thushara, Kulasekara emerge as the bright spots for Sri Lanka
For Sri Lanka, the series had reached a point where writing about them could be dealt with in one phrase: "Insert previous comments here." However, the fifth match at Colombo on Friday was refreshingly different with Thilan Thushara and Nuwan Kulasekara capping hard-working efforts in the series with personal bests, as Sri Lanka managed a consolation win in their second successive ODI series defeat at home.
The success of the two bowlers is special, as they may not have got as much playing time had Lasith Malinga and Farveez Maharoof been in the squad. Thushara, tall and lanky, and Kulasekara, short and bustling with energy, have been two distinct bright spots for Sri Lanka in the one-day leg of this series. While far more illustrious names like Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan have been surprisingly off-key, these two allrounders have taken the opportunity to impress. The dead rubber of the series was a fitting reply from the two non-descripts to stake their claims for the future.
Today, Irfan Pathan took two wickets in four balls to wrest the advantage back India's way, and RP Singh and Pragyan Ojha applied further pressure. With only Jehan Mubarak, in his first outing of the series, left to bat with, Thushara took the lead in hitting out. Once confident, he backed away and slashed the ball hard, almost always finding the gaps. Suddenly Indian shoulders dropped. Thushara hustled for singles and doubles and struck the ball with a fluidity lacking in some of his far more established top-order team-mates. Perhaps the pressure didn't get to him, being a relative unknown. Thushara and Mubarak ensured Sri Lanka could win this game, especially since conditions at the Premadasa did not favour the team batting second.
Thushara's lower-order batting had been a real positive for Sri Lanka throughout the series. In the second match he top-scored to carry his team to a poor 142; in the third he made 30 in a hopeless late-order stand with his captain; in the fourth he capped his maiden five-wicket haul with a 29-ball 40. Today, walking in at 133 for 6, Thushara batted superbly for his maiden ODI half-century.
Equally impressive, after a disappointing Test series, was Kulasekara's performance. He repeatedly took wickets at the start in every match, and under lights he dealt three swift blows. With a decent total to defend, Kulasekara proceeded to snap India's spine. There wasn't a lot of movement for the seamers, and so he bowled a disciplined off-stump line and pitched the ball up. The result was 4 for 40, his best return in 37 ODIs. All four came in a decisive first spell, either side of a rain delay, with the new ball.
His first two overs were maidens, a rarity in one-day cricket. Gautam Gambhir was then smartly caught by Kumar Sangakkara, standing up to the stumps, Virat Kohli was caught in front, Suresh Raina was hustled for pace, and a poor decision got rid of Rohit Sharma. But full credit to Kulasekara, who landed the ball in the right areas and got it to skid on. His effervescent smile when he took the last catch was endearing. He has been a regular feature since the World Cup, and this was reward for perseverance.
For Thushara, looking to cement his place, this was a path-breaking series. With regard to both the new ball and bowling first-change, he has plugged away, taking at least one wicket every game. He has struck blows in both the early and middle overs. His double-wicket maiden over in the second match, as Sri Lanka tried desperately to defend a poor score, hurt India. In the fourth ODI, India had powered themselves to 224 for 3 in the 41st over when Thushara, who had never taken more than two wickets in a match, struck. He removed Suresh Raina and didn't look back, taking two wickets in the final over to complete his five-for. India had lost seven wickets for 34 runs. If not for his efforts, Sri Lanka would have been routed in both matches.
The trip to the Caribbean earlier this year provided Thushara with a second crack at international cricket, following strong performances in domestic competitions (capped by ten wickets for Sinhalese against Chilaw Marians), and his success (eight wickets at 38.62) earned the praise of Mahela Jayawardene. His ability to bring the ball into the right-handers was evident in the Test series and the Asia Cup, and against India he used it repeatedly to throttle runs. With Vaas at the end of his career, and Maharoof out with injury, Thushara's performance this series has been extremely positive. He finished the series as Sri Lanka's second-highest run-scorer with 168 and the third-highest wicket-taker in the series.
It has been a stark contrast to the first part of Thushara's international career, when he made his Test debut against West Indies at Jamaica in 2003 and went wicketless due to some rather erratic bowling and subsequently faded. His steady progress thereafter - he had a stint at the SCL Academy as well as league cricket in England - as an allrounder will definitely please Sri Lanka.
"These two have been very consistent, especially Kulasekara, and this is what happens when you give opportunities to youngsters," said Jayawardene. "It creates competition in the team. Vaas is still great so we have a good balance. None of our fast bowlers are alike, so we can use them at different times."
Sri Lanka needed to win this game, if only for morale reasons, and the two workman-like characters prevailed.
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo