Gruelling schedule takes toll on Sri Lanka
The Indian Ocean at the famous Galle Face promenade in Colombo, right across the road from the teams' hotel, is relentless, as all oceans are. Wave after powerful wave keeps pounding the shore - a bit like the current international cricket schedule, where match after match keeps arriving, with no break in sight and no regard for spent bodies and weary minds. Sri Lanka are a telling example: their players have, since the 2011 World Cup, moved from series to series and country to country, and the strain has started to show.
The most important victories, the series ones, have just not come, though matches have been won. Having won just one of their previous eight ODI series, against Pakistan, Sri Lanka are now one game away from losing another one, to India.
And the injuries are piling up now. Kumar Sangakkara, easily their best batsman of late, is out for at least four weeks with a broken finger. Nuwan Kulasekara, whose importance in ODIs is next only to Lasith Malinga, is already out, having hurt his groin in the first game. Graham Ford, Sri Lanka's coach, said Kulasekara was the sixth fast bowler he had lost to injury. Suranga Lakmal, Chanaka Welegedara, Shaminda Eranga, Dhammika Prasad, Dilhara Fernando - all have been, or are, on the injured list recently.
The madness deserves to be put down in words. Since the World Cup last April, Sri Lanka's players have gone to India for the IPL, then to England, back home to play Australia, to the UAE to play Pakistan, to South Africa, to Australia, to Bangladesh, back home to play England, to India for another IPL, back home to play Pakistan and now India. Forget international cricketers, airplanes will have to be grounded after logging so many miles so quickly. Seventeen Tests - joint-highest in the period. Forty-three ODIs, easily the highest in the period, trumping even usual leaders India, who are second with 34. Oh, and the Sri Lanka Premier League is waiting, as is the World Twenty20.
Ford acknowledged the obvious - the need for a rotation and workload management plan. "We find ourselves in a situation very different from the Indian team," Ford said. "They are really getting themselves back in [after a two-month break]. Some [of our] players have had a very busy time and fatigue management for some of them has become quite high priority. We have to handle players slightly differently. Keeping them nice and fresh is very important. We are in discussion to try to put something in place."
The immediate task before Sri Lanka is to win Tuesday's game without Sangakkara's batting and wicketkeeping and Kulasekara's bowling, else the series is gone. "It is a tough ask," Ford said. "We have to come back from 2-1 down. Two important players not available, but it's an opportunity for others to step up. It's an opportunity for us to find out more about others."
Sangakkara's absence is a double blow. Starting from the fourth ODI against Pakistan last month, this is his run of scores - 97, 40, 199*and 1, 192 and 24*, 0 and 74*, 133 and 73. Mahela Jayawardene has not only lost his star batsman, he has also lost the advice and insight he gets from the former captain from his position behind the stumps. With Dinesh Chandimal usually playing as a specialist batsman, Sri Lanka even toyed with the idea of calling up Test keeper Prasanna Jayawardene, the last of whose six ODIs was in May 2007.
"That was a consideration," Ford said. "Prasanna creates a lot of pressure in all forms of the game with his wicketkeeping skills. But we also looking into the future and Dinesh becomes a candidate for us to do the job. It's an opportunity for us to see how he goes with that duty behind the stumps."
Kulasekara's 39 wickets in 33 matches against India are magnified by his replacement Isuru Udana's struggles in the previous two games. "Kulasekara is a hugely skillful and an outstanding one-day bowler," Ford said. "To lose him is a big blow, but it's an opportunity for someone else to do what they can do. With six bowlers out it is pretty tough at the moment. He has been a star for Sri Lankan cricket for a long time particularly in the one-day format. He has created some problems for the Indian batsmen in recent times, particularly in Australia. I guess they are pretty glad to see that he is not involved."
Sri Lanka beat South Africa in the Durban Test last December when no one expected them to, and Ford spoke about the character of his side. "One thing that I have known about the Sri Lankan team is that they are great fighters. Very often when times are tough, that's when they produce their best performances." Will tomorrow be another such time?
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo