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December 25, 2011
As a new year approaches, there is usually a desire to reflect on the one that is about to come to an end. For the Sri Lankan cricket team, that reflection has been both a want and a need.
Since losing the World Cup final, the zip of their bridesmaid's dresses has been caught and they have been unable to escape from them. They ended second best in the series against England, Australia and Pakistan. When they arrived in South Africa, the underdog label came with them and they stitched it on even more firmly after being crushed inside three days in the first Test. The other two days, they used for training and then they took some time out to work out how to improve.
"It's been the same mistakes repeated quite a few times," Kumar Sangakkara said. "Those are things we can't excuse. When you have a lot of excuses around you it really doesn't work."
"We've made the guys understand and move on from there. We need to work as hard as we can on every aspect of our game - from physical fitness, to skill work, to the mental side of things and to have fun while doing all of that."
Although Sri Lanka's lack of bowling depth was talked of as their major weakness, it turned out to be their poor application with the bat that cost them the Centurion Test. Everyone, from former captain Sanath Jayasuriya to batting consultant Marvan Atapattu and even captain Tillakaratne Dilshan has said the batsmen need to step up, and now Sangakkara has added his voice to that chorus.
"We have to bat well in our first innings and fight for every opportunity," he said. "Everyone is not going to be successful on the day, but you have seven batsmen, three of them need to fire and everyone else bats around them." Sangakkara's failure in both innings in Centurion, exposing the lower line-up to a South African attack who showed no mercy, was a big blow for Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan batsmen's insecurities are magnified in conditions which offer pace and bounce. Sangakkara said one of things the team has spent a lot of time working on is confidence. "Once we get them [the batsmen] believing in themselves, we can turn these results around," he said. "It's great to talk romantically about this but at the end of the day it's about sweating it out in the nets, being as tough as you can to deliver the 30 that might win you a game. Every day it won't be a 100 that will win you the game. Cricket is very old fashioned in that sense, it hasn't changed, it's just hard work."
Their training sessions are long, gruelling and intense. They wasted no time after being humiliated in Centurion and were back the next day to start over. When it rained in Durban, they used the indoor facility. Now, Sangakkara hopes that the regularity with which they do things in practice can be mirrored on match-day.
Sri Lanka have not delivered much in the latter part of this year but Sangakkara said their failures should motivate them to get better. "Like winning, losing can become a habit," Sangakkara said, and it's a habit that could poison the transition phase that Sri Lanka are currently in. "For new players to be coming in and for them to be in an environment where we have lost more than we have won is also not the ideal place to be."
Perhaps the only way to create a better team culture will be to rectify one of Sri Lanka's most glaring errors - the one of yesteryear that hindsight cannot fix. An over-reliance on record-breaking spinner Muttiah Muralitharan has never been more obvious than now, because Sri Lanka have failed to win a Test since he retired last year. Although all the senior players, including Sangakkara, have stressed the country's cricket, as a whole, needs to move on from the days of Murali, it's one of those things that is far easier said than done.
"It's time to forget all of that," Sangakkara said. "That's the way cricket works. Bradmans come and go. There are people who will take their place. They may not be as good as them but they will win matches in their own way. For us as a unit, the fewer excuses we make, the better it will be. The responsibility is on us now."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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