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Sri Lanka - learning on the fly, teaching a lesson to their big brothers

The team built by Shanaka and Silverwood - without much time for planning, mind you - has proved to the world, again, that they are no pushovers

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
It seemed inconceivable on the opening night of the Asia Cup that Sri Lanka would end up beating Bangladesh, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan on the bounce. From nearly being dumped from their own party - they are the hosts, remember? - to a run to the final, their spree has added a refreshing twist to a tournament many felt would be a three-match India-Pakistan series with some undercards thrown in between.
Sri Lanka's ordinary record coming into the tournament has made their run all the more awe-inspiring. They landed in Dubai having lost nine of their previous 11 T20Is. Injuries within the group delayed their squad announcement until they had to go ahead with it, without Avishka Fernando, Dushmantha Chameera, Lahiru Kumara, Kasun Rajitha and Kusal Perera.
Two weeks on, their young outfit, led by the mild-mannered and smiling Dasun Shanaka, will be looking to pull off one of their biggest white-ball wins in recent times. For a side that doesn't have towering superstars, or many in-demand players for their T20 skillsets - barring Wanindu Hasaranga, of course - this will be a battle of mind over matter, and skill over stardom.
This isn't a team built on the genes of the past, or with the ammunition and aggro of a Sanath Jayasuriya or Romesh Kaluwitharana. It isn't a team with the magical skills of Muthiah Muralidaran or Lasith Malinga. There is no sage-like wisdom - what Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene brought - to turn to.
Simply, this is an inexperienced team having little or no choice but to learn on the fly. They have racked up these wins despite having a mediocre domestic T20 set-up when compared to India or Pakistan or Bangladesh. Although the Lanka Premier League has had two seasons [it has been postponed this year], the IPL, PSL and BPL are more established events.
However, the situation at home - with the raging economic crisis - might have put some things into perspective. Shanaka has time and again spoken of trying to put smiles on people's faces back home. Bhanuka Rajapaksa wants to give back to the fans the brand of cricket Sri Lanka played in the 1990s. Hasaranga wants fans to start believing in the team again. There is a collective sense of happiness and freedom. It has spread to every corner of the traveling contingent.
Under new coach Chris Silverwood, the team has already achieved a landmark 3-2 ODI series win over Australia at home, apart from Test wins over Australia and Pakistan. So they know they are good enough. Even if that confidence has at times been replaced by diffidence, like on that opening night of the Asia Cup against Afghanistan, or in the first Test against Australia in July.
Without some of their best players available for the Asia Cup, which took away a lot of pace and batting firepower, Sri Lanka had to do a quick fix; there wasn't enough time for an overhaul. In any case, Silverwood has had to hit the ground running. In the four months he has been with Sri Lanka, he has barely had time to breathe.
The caravan has rolled so quickly that he has had to be dynamic almost at all times. Like the move to open with Kusal Mendis, who has provided some clean, frills-free batting, in place of Danushka Gunathilaka. Or hedging bets on Pathum Nissanka, an old-school, orthodox batter. Or handing the new ball to Dilshan Madushanka, the wiry left-arm quick, who didn't have bowling spikes until three years ago. He had to find ways to avoid his father's wrath every day to play cricket. Here he was, splaying Virat Kohli's stumps with a vicious inswinger. He may not have played if not for the injuries, but it's now hard to see how Sri Lanka will leave him out.
On the field, there's been no filth from Shanaka. He's a genial character, happy to offer his insights whenever his bowlers need it, but happy to watch their execution from afar at other times. He hasn't been at their ear all the time mouthing instructions.
In fact, Shanaka has been that quiet contributor who has risen above pressure and delivered with the bat without a fuss. It's almost as if his job is to walk out in pressure situations and bail the team out, like he did with a match-winning knock against India after Sri Lanka had lost four wickets for next to nothing, turning a canter to the target into a full-blown meltdown.
You can't look at him and think he is a reluctant captain. He's a bowler's captain. He gives them fields they want, and allows them leeway for errors. And he stays in the background. Apart from a quip or two about Afghanistan's bowling being more threatening than Bangladesh's. Even that, ESPNcricinfo expert Farveez Maharoof said, wasn't like Shanaka at all.
If it became a flashpoint of sorts, it wasn't of Shanaka's making. And we know how Bangladesh's "at least we have Shakib [Al Hasan] and Mustafizur [Rahman]; Sri Lanka have none" ended.
Calmness has been at the centre of Sri Lanka's success. They haven't so far been intimidated by pressure. They have also had oodles of luck, having won each of the tosses in their four wins. And so, batting first is a challenge they are yet to embrace. How they react to this unfamiliar challenge in the final - if they have to - could well decide the outcome of the contest.
But for a team that has withstood several challenges thrown at them to punch above their weight and show themselves and the world that they are no pushovers, Sunday night could yet be the springboard to a brighter future.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo