Team preview: Sri Lanka September 6, 2007

Top-heavy

Sri Lanka's experience at the top of the order - especially Jayasuriya's quick starts - may prove crucial. By Kanishkaa Balachandran



Jayasuriya needs to get going early, like he did in the 1996 World Cup © Getty Images

Though England are credited with the conception of Twenty20, the trendsetters of the style of batsmanship that characterises the format are the Sri Lankans, who took the 1996 World Cup by storm with their pinch-hitting up the order.

The only survivor from that team is Sanath Jayasuriya and his blazing starts will be crucial.

Under Mahela Jayawardene, Sri Lanka have emerged as world beaters, and were regarded as the team best equipped to topple Australia in the World Cup, though they faltered at the final hurdle. A short home series against Bangladesh followed, where the visitors were defeated in both the Tests and ODIs.

The Sri Lankans have had some valuable time off since then, and have been able to pick their strongest squad, with only a couple of youngsters included. A handful of key players will be coming in from county stints, and rustiness should not be a factor.

Home truths
Sri Lanka were early to embrace Twenty20 cricket and included it in their domestic season in 2004, a year after the format was introduced in England. It was scheduled in September, ahead of the domestic season and Chilaw Marians emerged champions. The 2005-06 edition was held in November; the defending champions lost to Sinhalese Sports Club in the final. This year's tournament was played in March and Ragama Cricket Club emerged winners.

However, the interest in Twenty20 is yet to take off in the country, owing to last-minute scrambling to get the tournaments organised. Operational and marketing glitches were also to blame and it could be a matter of time till the crowds start pouring in.

Sri Lanka's international experience is limited to three matches, winning two and losing one. The tour of New Zealand last year included two matches, while their first Twenty20 international ended in a two-run victory against England at Southampton.

Strengths
Batting continues to be Sri Lanka's strength and the squad has plenty of strokeplayers with good one-day records. The top order have the ability to pierce the gaps early, and their experience will be a factor in ensuring they don't step over the fine line between aggression and recklessness. Jayasuriya will be relied upon to blaze away, and the side has handy finishers like Chamara Silva and Tillakaratne Dilshan.

Chaminda Vaas will be difficult to get away, as will Dilhara Fernando with his clever changes of pace; the way he out-thought Ravi Bopara in the World Cup nailbiter is a case in point.

The fielding is mostly sharp and the number of runs saved could well be the difference between victory and defeat.

I would expect Sri Lanka to reach the semi-finals, but where I previously thought that they would reach the final, this may be now beyond them without the threat of Muralitharan

Ian Chappell

Weaknesses
Sri Lanka's limited international experience of Twenty20 is a possible drawback. While that is true of most international teams, Sri Lanka played the last of their three matches eight months ago - not the ideal preparation. The players in the side haven't been exposed to too much Twenty20 cricket at the domestic level either.

Muttiah Muralitharan, nursing an elbow injury, will be missed. And the selectors may have missed a trick by not picking Upul Chandana, who provides a spin option with his quickish legbreaks; his powerful lower-order hitting and electric fielding would have come in handy too. Allrounder Chamara Kapugedera, who has a Twenty20 best of 96 at the domestic level, is another surprise omission.

Players to watch
Sanath Jayasuriya Sri Lanka's dominance over the last year has coincided with Jayasuriya's return to form, and his reflexes are still reminiscent of his halcyon days of 1996. He starred in the first Twenty20 international against New Zealand last year, scoring an unbeaten 51 and picking up three wickets. He also scored 41 in the game against England. His left-arm spin will be useful as a wicket-taking and run-saving option both, given his ability to fire the ball into blockhole, especially to right-handers.

Lasith Malinga With 18 wickets in the World Cup, Malinga has emerged as Sri Lanka's premier strike bowler. His slingy action continues to bamboozle batsmen, and his screeching yorkers will be difficult to get away. His dramatic four-wicket burst against South Africa in the World Cup was one of the few talking points in an otherwise dull tournament; his tournament average of 15.77 was among the top three as well.

Dark horse
Jehan Mubarak In and out of the side, Mubarak - who has a Twenty20 personal best of 94 not out - could be the surprise package at the top of the order. He was recalled for the one-dayers against Bangladesh and made a good impression, scoring 72 from No. 5 in the third match. It could well be a toss-up between him and Upul Tharanga for the opener's slot. Between Mubarak and the other relative newcomers, Hasantha Fernando, Gayan Wijekoon and Dilruwan Perera, Mubarak seems more of a certainty to play.



Jehan Mubarak could well be Sri Lanka's surprise package at the top of the order © Getty Images

Ian Chappell's take
While the loss of Muttiah Muralitharan on the eve of a major tournament is not quite the disaster it would have been five years ago, it will still be a big blow to Sri Lanka's chances of winning the ICC World Twenty20 Championships. Even without Muralitharan, Sri Lanka still have great variety in their attack, but much of the intimidation factor will be lost. This will add to the burden of the faster bowlers, in particular Chaminda Vaas and Lasith Malinga. However Muralitharan's absence creates a wonderful opportunity for Kaushal Lokuarachchi, who should now be close to the age of maturity for a legspinner.

Sri Lanka are also fortunate to have a number of part-time spinners who have had a lot of experience bowling at the international level, and they will help dispel some of the disappointment since Muralitharan isn't available.

The batting is strong with the dangerous Sanath Jayasuriya and the elegant Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, who all have different ways of reaching the same target - a substantial total. Nevertheless Sri Lanka do lack a powerful hitter in the middle order and this is most likely to hurt them against Australia, as it most probably would have, if the recent World Cup final was played over the full distance.

I would expect Sri Lanka to reach the semi-finals, but where I previously thought that they would reach the final, this may be now beyond them without the threat of Muralitharan. Rating: 7/10

Kanishkaa Balachandran is an editorial assistant on Cricinfo

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