Sri Lanka bank on tested formula
"It can all change in one over" is the line sold by Twenty20 hype-men, but in 18 months of T20 efficiency, Sri Lanka have clung to a different truth. The format is fickle, but not unpredictable, they've felt. It shifts rapidly, but it is not immune to forethought. It's swayed by fortune, but not defined by it. Sri Lanka's best tactician Mahela Jayawardene put it this way: "The key to T20 is making fewer mistakes than the opposition."
So, over the past two years, Sri Lanka have absorbed that philosophy and chalked out a formula, refining elements as required, tinkering with the mechanism by trial and error. They have taken "hit and giggle" cricket seriously, dropping seniors temporarily to build depth in the squad, drawn up specific battle plans to target a range of opponents, and started rehearsing for the World T20 as far back as nine months ago. They have arrived in Bangladesh now with 13 wins from their last 18 matches, having topped the T20 rankings since the last global event. Thanks to the Asia Cup, they also have the taste of tournament victory fresh in their minds.
The top-order strategy goes something like this: Kusal Perera has the license to attack, Tillakaratne Dilshan - slyer and slower now than he used to be - seeks to bat through the innings. Kumar Sangakkara then imparts energy to the middle overs, and the versatile Mahela Jayawardene plays any role required, from accumulator to aggressor. Angelo Mathews' zest for finishing innings has been reclaimed in the past few months, and even if he fails, the likes of Thisara Perera and Nuwan Kulasekara are on hand to deliver the final blows. These players have fulfilled their roles so consistently, they have largely masked captain Dinesh Chandimal's shortcomings in the middle order.
With the ball, Mathews sneaks in a couple of cheap early overs while Kulasekara attacks, often successfully if there is swing to be had. Sachithra Senanayake comes from around the wicket to tie batsmen down, sometimes during the Powerplay, as Ajantha Mendis or Rangana Herath pose more menace through the middle. Lasith Malinga's yorkers close out the innings, and once again, Sri Lanka have fail safes if the above goes awry. Mathews and Thisara often have overs to spare at the death, and Dilshan pitches in with reliable offspin at a pinch.
Though they have embraced this formula, they have also remained elastic. Sri Lanka's success in big tournaments has largely been due to their ability to adapt to diverse oppositions and changing conditions in short intervals. They have proved to themselves that they are good at the format. They are familiar with Bangladesh, having spent six weeks there, and key men are in form. Sri Lanka want nothing less than the title.
Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara have announced their T20 international retirements after this tournament, which represents their penultimate chance of global-tournament glory. Sangakkara's returns in all formats are as good now as they ever have been, and having developed a violent strain to his strokeplay in the last 18 months, he will hope to contribute heavily in this tournament.
Jayawardene has been less consistent, but if the Asia Cup was any indication, he can still make the crunch matches pivot on his blade. Respected in the dressing room as they are in public, there will an element of wanting to win the tournament for Sanga and Mahela, but as they approach the end of 30 collective years in top-level cricket, no one will be more desperate than themselves.
Kusal Perera had been something of a gimmick in his first few months in international cricket; a Sanath Jayasuriya lookalike with a penchant for short bowling, who moved up the order to open. The iron bottom hand and the short-arm pick-up shot remain unchanged, but he has begun to tread down his own path in the past few months, steadily working towards more consistent results. He provided two good starts to the team in the Asia Cup, and weeks before had hit his maiden ODI ton against Bangladesh. He is sometimes guilty of attacking too many balls, but if he can refine his method for this tournament, he is capable of providing the sustained aggression at the top of the innings that has brought Sri Lanka success in the past.
DInesh Chandimal has been astute in brief brushes with captaincy, but his T20 record is unflattering. He has barely averaged 10 in the past year. There were signs he could change his form around when he hit 29 from 25 in the warm-up against India, but he will need to string several similar scores together to quell doubts about his place.
World T20 history
Sri Lanka left the tournament at the group stage in 2007, but made the final against Pakistan in 2009 and against West Indies in 2012. They also played a semi-final in the 2010 tournament in the Caribbean. A title still eludes them.
Across all formats, Sri Lanka have played 12 matches in Bangladesh since the last week of January, and are yet to drop a game. Since November, they have won four of their five T20s.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here