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Bowling strategy leaves Sri Lanka cramped for room

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'Thought pitch would turn but it didn't' - Senanayake (2:00)

Sachithra Senanayake talks about the pitch, Glenn Maxwell's innings, list of injuries in Sri Lanka's team and the loss to Australia (2:00)

There was the opening revolution in 1996. A wrist-spinning offbreak bowler who claimed more wickets than anyone else - in ODIs as well as Tests. Even in this current squad, Sri Lanka have a man whose action is singularly fit for delivering yorkers. The modern progenitor of the carrom ball is also among them.

It is a team that has a proud history of innovation. Of outwitting opponents when they can't outplay them. They glance back, grin, and dare the rest to follow. Sri Lanka haven't had the power hitters most other teams possess, yet they have been the best Twenty20 side in the world for over two years. Their two previous World Cups were defined by nous, those campaigns brought alive by mischief.

But in this World Cup, has their cricket's greatest strength become a weakness? While other teams crunch par scores, spreadsheet dot-ball percentages, and run Powerplay trends through software, Sri Lanka have held fiercely on to their non-conformity. The cult of the "Sri Lankan brand of cricket" thrives so stoutly now at the top level, that almost every player will speak platitudes on "doing it the Sri Lankan way", and blazing their own trail, instead of "copying others". But what if what others are doing works, and your own strategy is failing you? What if, time and again, the same area of your game is becoming exposed?

The top teams at this World Cup hail from three different continents. They are led by vastly dissimilar men, in dramatically disparate styles. Yet Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India - and even the recently resurgent Pakistan - are all united when it comes to the primary onus of their team combination: pick four proper bowlers first, then fit the seven batsmen around them.

Sri Lanka, meanwhile, have charged off on their own all tournament, and repeatedly fallen into the pit everyone else has carefully avoided. Corey Anderson and Luke Ronchi helped plunder 134 from the last 14 overs of the New Zealand innings in the tournament opener. Joe Root and Jos Buttler were protagonists in a 15-over raid that reaped 148. Sri Lanka were saved by the brilliance of their top three against England, but instead of viewing that game as a happy escape, they felt victory was vindication of their strategy. "Our current combination has worked for us so far, so we don't want to change a lot of things," Angelo Mathews had said.

But even when Rangana Herath - their most reliable bowler in the tournament - was unavailable for the match against a team wielding the most explosive middle-order around, Sri Lanka persisted with three specialist bowlers, and a trio of allrounders. Mayhem predictably ensued.

A change of pace dismissed David Warner, and a strange approach to leg spin sank Aaron Finch, but when Steven Smith and Michael Clarke - Australia's two most rounded, spin-ready batsmen - combined, their century stand was almost effortless. The pitch, Sachithra Senanayake later admitted, did not turn as much as Sri Lanka had expected, so Seekkuge Prasanna was casually clipped through the leg side. Senanayake's own errors of length and line were slapped, cut, pulled and manoeuvred.

And therein lies one of the major shortcomings of the three-bowler plan. When the pitch doesn't do what it was supposed to, or a frontliner has lost his radar, or the batting is unusually good, there is no scope to reassess and realign. Sri Lanka's adaptability in the field has been among the most alluring traits of their limited-overs story, but because they are a bowler short, some of the supplest tactical minds in the game have no scope to shine.

So Sri Lanka are forced into expectedly catastrophic moves. Thisara Perera has never been an outstanding death bowler. He's more suited to finding wickets through the middle overs, and even that, only when he's near his best. But in a tournament in which he has conceded he has not yet found his rhythm, Perera was given the 45th over against England, and disappeared for 25. He was called upon at the death again on Sunday, and conceded 20 runs in the 44th over, which should have seen him leave the attack for the day. But because Sri Lanka have no other options, he came back to the bowling crease and conceded 19 runs in the 49th over.

Sri Lanka had Lasith Malinga's yorkers firing again, as he claimed two scalps and went at less than a run a ball, yet their last 14 overs cost 174. Glenn Maxwell's hitting was barely believable at times, but there are so many extraordinary batting talents at this World Cup, Sri Lanka would be unwise not to account for them. Maybe this will be the clobbering that breaks the resistance to fielding an extra specialist bowler.

"We have to change the plans and we have to do some new things for the death overs, I think," Senanayake said after the match. "We all know Malinga is the best bowler we have at the death, but someone needs to bowl with him."

After so many recent surges in major tournaments, it is strange for Sri Lanka's fans to see their team outsmarted as well as outcompeted. At home they still trust that Sri Lanka have the players to triumph, and the same belief exists within the dressing room as well. Sri Lanka should never aspire to be a spreadsheet team. Their magic is what has seen them travel this far. But occasionally, it is okay to learn tricks from opponents. Occasionally, it can help to emulate.