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SL World Cup plans not in disarray yet

Angelo Mathews hits out during his unbeaten 92 BCCI

Sri Lanka had talked themselves down a lot before the India tour. The coach and captain stressed the lack of time the team had had. Drafted in for administrative expediency, Sri Lanka were like the man suddenly called upon to give a speech at the family wedding. The team had told themselves that the tour would ultimately not matter; that the other guests would understand that the jokes would be unrehearsed and the tear-jerking finish might not hit home. Only, when the dais was reached and the audience suspended their lives to hang on to every word, it all quickly felt like the most important thing in the world.

Having left Sri Lanka intent on avoiding panic, it took two big losses for the words "thrashed" and "embarrassed" to be used in self-critical judgement by Angelo Mathews. On Sunday, Mahela Jayawardene's first ODI ton in over a year should have been affirmation of his decision to retire from Tests and refresh himself for ODIs. Instead, his expression on reaching the milestone was grim and joyless.

It is part of their composition. Mathews and Jayawardene are so good at what they do because they are fiercely competitive, and because no matter how many psychological tricks they attempt to play on themselves, each loss feels like failure. They will be appalled that Sri Lanka have not stitched together a five-over stretch of pressure yet in the series, disheartened that the bowlers have not managed more than six wickets in any game, and frustrated at not having touched 280 on tracks that demand at least 300. With the World Cup peeking its glinting, bulbous head around the corner, this might be cause for worry.

Except, maybe it isn't. At least not yet. Even beyond this tour, Sri Lanka have 14 ODIs on their menu - seven at home against England (monsoon rains permitting) and seven in New Zealand, where they will also play two of their three major group games. There are glaring weaknesses to omit before February, creases to ease out and neckties to straighten, but they do have the resources to thrive. They had won 15 out of 20 ODIs in 2014 before this tour, claiming the Asia Cup and three out of four bilaterals for the trophy cupboard. They didn't suddenly become a poor team over two weeks.

The margin of their defeats and the meekness in their performance in India must be addressed, but losses at India's hands have not always been bad omens in the past. Sri Lanka had lost an ODI series to India in February 2007 but, six weeks later, knocked that same team out of the group stages of the World Cup en route to the final of that event. Four-one losses in ODIs also closely preceded the 2009 and 2012 World T20 tournaments, which Sri Lanka did well in.

That's not to say losses against India do not matter, but in the shorter formats, India have historically played a style of cricket that Sri Lanka have not managed to effectively counter. Sri Lanka have never won more than one ODI in a bilateral series in India, yet have been a significant one-day force elsewhere in the world for almost 20 years. Pitches and conditions in the two nations are often lumped together, but while teams routinely score at a run-a-ball or more in India, a score of over 300 has never successfully been chased in Sri Lanka - the only remaining top ten nation where this is true. Bowlers have found it difficult to adjust.

Despite all that, the ongoing series has brought a genuine, long-standing concern into sharp focus. Sri Lanka rely heavily on the three seniors - and lately Mathews himself - for the spine of their innings, but they have no contingency plan should the main men fail. Upul Tharanga and Kusal Perera have chased each other around the second opener's position for 18 months now, with neither man making any headway in India, while Ashan Priyanjan's grip on his middle-order position appears shaky after three mediocre outings. When it comes to the fringe players, Mathews finds himself singing a familiar refrain. Now for the last two ODIs, two more nearly men, Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne, have arrived in the squad.

"The youngsters need to try and step up their game," Mathews said after Sunday's loss. "We can't be experimenting with so many players. We've selected a certain amount of players and we are giving opportunities to them. The seniors are in form and they are performing and they're hungry for runs. But when they don't perform once in a while, the younger guys need to grab their opportunities."

The bowling has been toothless in India, and ideally Sri Lanka want Nuwan Kulasekara to regain his rhythm in the last two matches. If he, Lasith Malinga and Rangana Herath are fit and bowling well by February, Sri Lanka have a dependable core attack, with Thisara Perera and Angelo Mathews for support.

Sri Lanka will also hope to rediscover the fight and energy that so often adds venom to their cricket, as they approach the major tournament. For now though, as dispiriting as the series has been, and as harsh as Sri Lanka have been on themselves, their World Cup plans are not necessarily in disarray.