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Listless Sri Lanka missing spark on the field

Remember the Sri Lanka team of 1996? It had heft of the strictly physical variety. Arjuna Ranatunga's paunch was in full swing. Aravinda de Silva had directed every ounce of speed in his 5'4" frame to his batting reflexes. At times he covered ground so slowly it seemed as if he could lose a foot race to a fungal infestation. Asanka Gurusinha was no road-runner either.

De Silva's and Sanath Jayasuriya's batting have deservedly taken most accolades for that triumph, but it should not be forgotten that the headline-stealing acts were underwritten by a tournament-long excellence in the field. They may not have had the natural agility of an Australia or South Africa, but what they lacked for athleticism, they compensated in intensity.

An enduring memory of the semi-final at Eden Gardens was the number of men Sri Lanka committed to chasing down each ball. Three fielders would converge to trim a run from the opposition total. Sometimes it felt like they had 75 men on the field. They held catches. They threw down stumps. No one had spent hours teaching them the slide-and-throw. Dav Whatmore was their entire coaching staff. But fielding was like a frenzy that settled collectively upon them. In truth, they were among the least professional sides in the tournament. It felt like they were one of the most well-honed.

In 2015, in their second match of the World Cup, only one tough chance was spilt. That, in a way, is a great improvement from the eight previous matches against New Zealand, yet it belies the lethargy that has set in during their time in the country. When Afghanistan batsmen pierced the ring, pursuits of the ball were spiritless. Even hidden away at short fine leg, Lasith Malinga's dives were so late and ineffective, he seemed to exist in some sort of permanent slow motion. There was little chatter. No discernible buzz. Sri Lanka took aim at the wickets on many occasions, but at times it seemed as if the stumps were more capable of hitting the players than them it.

It's not as if this team is incapable of fielding well. Eight of the XI on the field on Sunday played in the late stages of last year's World T20, when Marlon Samuels and Yuvraj Singh were so hemmed in by Sri Lanka's infielders, neither could find the boundary even off the bad balls. Both ended up playing knocks that suffocated their own teams' innings. Even on cold days in England last year, Sri Lanka were committed and energetic. Now the ring field that had been like a concrete wall is more like a colander.

There is no doubt the Sri Lanka players have high hopes for the World Cup, even now. But that is not the impression they are giving off. When bowlers are lumbering after balls, bellies wobbling, it is easy to begin wondering if they really want to win this tournament. Sri Lanka's side is among the oldest in the tournament, and the most experienced so they should surely know better; but as others have noted, the saddest indictment on their fielding is that 38-year-old Tillakaratne Dilshan is still their main man at backward point.

They have been made to look bad by New Zealand, who as a unit are surely on the cusp of breaking through into a new era of evolution, but they were also less visibly interested than Afghanistan, who didn't have a stellar day in the field themselves.

"When you are defending a score, the team tends to put in that extra effort, like Afghanistan did," Mahela Jayawardene said. "We need to show the same intensity and try and restrict sides. Individually everyone can lift up the game more. It's a World Cup and that extra 5%, 10% matters."

Things can also change quickly in Sri Lanka's cricket. In past tournaments, that clinical fielding has caught them suddenly, and within two matches, they are a side transformed. Jayawardene has said Sri Lanka believe they have the personnel to lift the trophy. Perhaps being run close by Afghanistan will begin to move them in the right direction.

"It doesn't matter against whom you play, once you're pushed, mentally you need to be stronger, and that's what we showed today. It will good for us going into the tournament that we've been in a tough situation and we know how to handle that," he said.

A glance through Sri Lanka's squad list suggests there is considerable strength there, latent though it is at present. Right now, Sri Lanka are still cold. It's like they are standing around a pile of firewood, hands in pockets, wondering who will bring the matches.