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Sri Lanka need to cultivate the strengths of these five cricketers who've made a mark in the opportunities handed to them so far
Andrew Fidel Fernando
January 31, 2013
Prior to the tour of Australia, talk of an impending exodus of talent had dominated the narrative about Sri Lanka's future. Sri Lanka fielded their oldest ever Test team in the second Test against New Zealand in Colombo, and the collective resolve of the senior batsmen in particular appeared to be creaking beneath the weight of their years.
But as they return from Australia with a happy limited-overs leg behind them, the focus has moved to the men whose emergence in the tour has heralded a fresh chapter for the team. A new selection panel now has the task of guiding each prospect, and new bowling coach and a CEO have also been lined up. Below are observations and suggestions on how five of the brightest talents might be cultivated.
Perhaps the most impressive cricketer of the lot, and the batsman with the most robust defensive technique - particularly against fast bowling. He had trouble making it into the team in the latter half of 2012, but seemed to have used that time away wisely, fine-tuning scoring strokes that no longer need to be thrashed at as much as they once were.
His biggest shortcoming, however, is that he has been wildly inconsistent at home and in Asian conditions, which is strange for a Sri Lankan batsman with a fine domestic record. His stats outline this malaise. He has not yet played enough Tests to provide a satisfactory sample, but in 50 ODIs, he averages 49.80 in Australia, 54.66 in England and 52.75 in South Africa - figures comprising an extraordinary away record - but at home, his average dives to an abysmal 16.84. Even in the recent series against Australia, he has been noticeably less comfortable against good quality spin bowling, and it is against the slow bowlers that he has most room to grow.
He should now be rewarded with a regular Test place now, which is the format to which his cricket seems most suited. He can more than justify a specialist batsman's spot.
He bowled only one over in Australia, and although it went for plenty, his class still shone through, even in six deliveries. The rain robbed him of a second spell, but in the past he has come back strongly when batsmen have targeted him, and his five variations were at once dependable and menacing during Sri Lanka's World Twenty20 campaign.
Sri Lanka have tended to use him conservatively, and only when conditions are stacked in his favour. Perhaps that is a strategy that should be persevered with. It is difficult to imagine another international cricketer with as little professional experience as him, and as tenacious as he seems he is not ready for the training wheels to come off just yet. He will begin his first season of first-class cricket in the month to come, where he cannot just rely on his bag of tricks for success, and with any luck, he will always be encouraged to earn wickets using flight, dip and turn as well as variation.
If Muttiah Muralitharan is appointed spin-bowling coach, Dananjaya will have a coterie of spinners around him who can each educate him on various aspects of his craft and spur him to improve. Perhaps no one in the game disguised variations and used them as wisely across all formats as Murali, while Rangana Herath's career is built upon spin's subtler arts and a sharp wit. Ajantha Mendis is the cautionary tale, and Tharindu Kaushal, a 19-year-old offspinner who has been piling up wickets in his first season of professional cricket, will in time provide healthy competition for a place in the Test team.
One of only two centurions on the tour for Sri Lanka, and a batsman seemingly possessed of a steely temperament and a knack for holding the team innings together. He is adored by Sri Lanka's batting pundits, and it's rumoured that it was Aravinda de Silva who talked him into pursuing a career as a cricketer while he was still in school. He has since won over several other high-profile supporters as well.
Thirimanne was once an opener before being moved into the middle order, but it seems he is now being groomed for the No. 3 spot that Kumar Sangakkara will eventually vacate. So far, it seems a good fit. Thirimanne starts slowly in limited-overs matches, but that is forgivable if he continues to make substantial contributions from the top order. He does need to develop the ability to rotate the strike with more ease and accelerate his scoring when the situation calls for it, but that should not come at the expense of the fine defensive mettle and judgment he showed in his 91 in the Sydney Test. He seems out of place in Twenty20s, and perhaps he should be asked to focus just on the longer formats - which will not only open up a place for a more aggressive player, but will also help foster the good habits he has already acquired.
A Test opener in the aggressive mould, Karunaratne has the ability to pound an attack until their efforts wane, and the batting becomes easier for both himself and whoever is at the other end. Particularly powerful through the leg side, but not bereft of aggressive off-side strokes, his two half-centuries have been entertaining, but the string of low scores between them have smacked of wastefulness. Often, he starts quickly and with assurance, only to be dismissed when all seems set for him to push on. He perished thrice in Australia to the full, seaming delivery outside off stump, and as a left hander that is not a weakness he can afford to leave uncorrected for long.
He has seemingly been afforded a long trot in Tests, and perhaps that is where his focus should remain for now. Tillakaratne Dilshan has hinted he may not play the longest format for long, and Sri Lanka have a much keener need for a good opener in Tests than in limited-overs matches, and Karunaratne's defense could do with better precision.
The most pleasant surprise of the tour, and the most exciting batting prospect in the shorter formats. Perera seems to have lifted his technique from the Sanath Jayasuriya manual on bullish batting, and like the old man, he has an impressive second skill too. Unlike Thirimanne, Angelo Mathews and Chandimal, Perera has not been shy of starting his innings quickly, and has been both bold and busy at the crease in his few short innings. At the Gabba, he saw Sri Lanka through to their target despite the clatter of wickets around him, and in both Twenty20s, his rollicking starts were instrumental to Sri Lanka's success. He has not yet played an innings of great substance, but you feel that if more opportunities come his way, it may not be long before he tunes up his judgement and settles in for a long career.
In the two matches in which he kept wickets, he seemed a more gifted gloveman than Chandimal, and if Perera's batting flourishes, perhaps the selectors will be tempted to ask Chandimal to focus on his batting in the long term. A similar strategy has already worked well for Sri Lanka, when Sangakkara's batting bloomed after he was relieved of the gloves in Tests by Prasanna Jayawardene
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets hereFeeds: Andrew Fidel Fernando
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Plays of the day from the fourth ODI between Australia and South Africa at the MCG