Emerging talent will test Sri Lanka's stars
When well-established sides encounter opposition they are expected to beat comfortably, it has long been a cliché for captains to ensure the public knows they are not being complacent. Throughout the tour so far Angelo Mathews has been careful to talk Bangladesh up as a side that posed a serious threat to Sri Lanka. Several times he has even highlighted his opponents' menace by invoking Sri Lanka's Asia Cup loss to Bangladesh last year. "They are an improved side," Mathews has said at almost every opportunity, with "we have to play well to beat them" usually coming after.
But despite his eagerness to dispel thoughts that the team has let its standards slip, on the eve of the first ODI in Hambantota, Mathews also said Sri Lanka were already looking beyond the series at hand. After the three ODIs and Twenty20 against Bangladesh, Sri Lanka have no international commitments for two months (thanks to Sri Lanka Cricket's commitment to making its players available for the entire IPL), and their next assignment is a major one: the Champions Trophy in June.
"This series is a great opportunity for all the cricketers ahead of the Champions Trophy," Mathews said. "We expect to play our best XI in this match, but I think this series will have a major impact on who is selected for the Champions Trophy."
There are several subplots unfolding in the Sri Lanka side, in what is effectively a season of major change. Unlike in Tests, where Sri Lanka has struggled to produce players of consistent quality in some disciplines, the limited-overs sides are heavy with talent, and as such, competition has grown fierce.
Ajantha Mendis may be an unconvincing Test bowler, but his record remains impressive in ODIs, in which he boasts an average of 21.37. Yet he was not considered worthy of a place in the squad for the first two matches. If he does not win a place for the third match in Pallekele, and Sachithra Senanayake takes a bagful in the series, Mendis may find he cannot claw his way into a trip to the UK in June, regardless of how many domestic sides he demolishes in the meantime. Akila Dananjaya too, finds himself out of favour with the current selectors, despite their focus on youth, and his largely encouraging performances in the national side.
In the top order, Kushal Perera is coming off a fearsome run of form in the first-class tournament, and will pose a major threat to Upul Tharanga, who has been Sri Lanka's regular opener for several years. Tharanga may have 12 ODI hundreds, but given Kushal Perera made a triple-ton, a double-ton and a 97 in his last three first-class innings, Sri Lanka's selectors will find it difficult to overlook a batsman who not only attacks without relent, but also has command of the defensive game, and the temperament that allows him to thrive in long stretches. Tharanga was picked in the 16-man squad, but has since been told he will not be required for the first match in Hambantota, which already suggests which way the selectors are leaning.
The senior batting trio of Kumar Sangakkara, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Mahela Jayawardene are unlikely to have their places questioned for the Champions Trophy, but they all harbour ambitions of another crack at World Cup glory - having been so close twice before - and the emergence of several young batting talents will have put them on notice in the long-term. If they are to hold off challenges from the likes of Angelo Perera and Kithuruwan Vithanage, the runs must continue to flow quickly, and often from their blades. There are no laggards in the chasing group, having been shaped by the age of Powerplays and scoop shots.
It is not just the seniors who now have to watch their backs either. Lahiru Thirimanne's batting was formed in a more reticent mould than Perera's or Vithanage's, but he has made himself a regular ODI player, and proved with a compelling hundred in Australia that he can be successful in the format. In just one lean series, though, he might feel his grip on a top-order spot loosen. Jeevan Mendis meanwhile has been a bit-part utility, but he has not often provided the big, impactful contributions Sri Lanka have required from him, and the presence of 23-year-old spinning allrounder Sachith Pathirana is a clear message that the team is willing to look at other options.
As Mathews has said, Sri Lanka's ODI XI has been stable of late, with little to suggest major changes are required. Perera, Vithanage and Pathirana may not debut in this series, but if their mere presence in the squad can spur the more established members of the team to perform, the trio will already have done the national team a favour.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here