The early exits of South Africa and India took up most of the column inches during the first part of the 2009 Champions Trophy, but equally surprising, and disappointing, was the poor display by Sri Lanka. Under Kumar Sangakkara they appeared to have developed a more aggressive attitude, and the success of some of their fast bowlers suggested an all-round attack capable of performing in all conditions. After a great start to the tournament, though, it fell away alarmingly - they got the wrong end of the conditions against England, and were simply outgunned against New Zealand, which was probably their most disappointing result of the tournament.
That match also summed up Sri Lanka's problems when they travel, especially to Australia and South Africa. Their fast bowlers, so effective on skiddy pitches back home, struggled to find the right length in completely different conditions - Nuwan Kulasekara and Thilan Thushara both went at more than seven an over, while Lasith Malinga was worse, conceding 85 from ten. With the spinners not hitting their strides either, there was no way back. After the game, Sangakkara was honest in his assessment: "It probably has to do with the lengths we have to bowl here," Sangakkara said. "We have played a lot of cricket at home where lengths are different. Here we have to go back to basics and see, especially with our fast bowling, where the right lengths are and also how to hit them with aggression. We have to adapt."
Bowling was trumped up as Sri Lanka's strength, but in the tournament, Sri Lanka's attack was the least incisive of all, taking 18 wickets at a cost of 40.77 each. No other team gave away more than 36.
Bowling on pitches which offer bounce has for long been a problem for several fast bowlers from the subcontinent. The Indians have struggled with it as well, but Ishant Sharma, Zaheer Khan and a few others have shown they prefer bounce to the low, skiddy surfaces of the subcontinent. The lack of height for Sri Lanka's fast bowlers, though, means they're less effective on tracks that offer more bounce.
The table below highlights the problem for Sri Lanka's fast bowlers in Australia and South Africa. In ODIs there since 2000, they average more than 38 runs per wicket, and conceded 5.23 runs per over. Among the top ten teams, only Bangladesh have fared worse in these two countries.
A look at the individual bowlers shows most of them have pretty disappointing stats in Australia and South Africa. Chaminda Vaas' numbers are respectable, but Kulasekara has averaged more than 40 in 14 games, at an economy rate which is poorer than his overall economy. Similarly, Malinga has leaked 5.53 per over. Dilhara Fernando has fared worse, conceding almost 43 runs per wicket and more than a run a ball.
Those bowling stats have gone a long way in ensuring Sri Lanka have a below-par record in these two countries, winning 16 and losing 32 in the last decade. They did make the semi-final of the 2003 World Cup in South Africa and the final of the VB Series in 2006, but apart from that they've had plenty of disappointments in those two countries. Only West Indies, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh have a poorer win-loss ratio there over the last decade, while the two other major teams from the subcontinent have both done better.
Sri Lanka have clearly underperformed in ODIs in Australia and South Africa, but some of it is also because of the lack of opportunities for their players to play there. They've had a fair number of ODI exposure there, but while other sides have also toured for Tests series, Sri Lanka have had minimal opportunities, despite an FTP schedule which is supposed to ensure teams tour each country for Test series at regular intervals. Since January 2003, Sri Lanka have played all of four Tests in those two countries, all of them in Australia in two series of two Tests each. Even Zimbabwe and Bangladesh have played as many Tests there during this period, while all the other sides have played more - India and England have played almost three times as many. The last time Sri Lanka played Tests in South Africa was in 2002 - seven years ago.
Murali's dip in form
As if the lack of penetration from the fast bowlers wasn't bad enough, Sri Lanka were also badly hit by the unexpectedly toothless display by Muttiah Muralitharan. Murali's ten overs have almost been taken for granted - which is tribute to his skill and consistency over so many years - but in the Champions Trophy he went for 106 runs in 18 overs, picked up only one wicket, and was dropped from their last match. It was easily his poorest display in a World Cup or a Champions Trophy.
In fact, Murali's economy rate for 2009 is 4.77, pretty good by most standards but his worst in a year ever. Injuries have obviously played a part in slightly diminishing his effectiveness, but the next few months will show if he can regain his powers of old.