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Feature

Sri Lanka are discovering new heroes, one match at a time

Do the last 18 months in Sri Lankan cricket show that the transition phase is finally over, wonders Andrew Fidel Fernando

Take a deep breath. This was not a fever dream. Don't doubt it. No need to pinch yourself. If you live in Sri Lanka, the economy is doing much worse to you anyway. It happened. It's real.
You've lived through the golden age. Remember that? Sri Lanka won five Asia Cups, made three T20 World Cup finals, won one of those - their players at the forefront of the game's evolution, their attack so varied it was almost perverse, their batting engine room consistently putting up runs, plus pretty decent at making speeches, even to posh white people.
There have been dark times since. Pitch-black, can't-see-your-own-nose times. In 2016 - just two years after they had won the T20 World Cup - Sri Lanka lost 13 of the 16 T20Is they played. There were even worse years. In a Covid-affected 2020, they won none of their completed T20I matches. In other formats, there were unprecedented home-series losses to Zimbabwe, repeated whitewashes at the hands of India, and fielding performances that would have embarrassed a cricket team of penguins, let alone paid professionals.
Sri Lanka is a team in transition, said administrators and coaches. Give 'em time. Problem was, at times it seemed the transition was complete; they had just become a trash-heap team.
But if you take the last 18 months, and now this match against India… dare Sri Lanka fans believe it? Is the transition over? It's been so long since there was method or consistency here. So long since wins built to other wins; since a whole batting order clicked game after game; since the attack pulled together even when star bowlers were having off days.
At this Asia Cup, they've now run down 184 against Bangladesh, 176 against Afghanistan (a ground record at Sharjah), and now, against arguably the best-drilled attack of the lot, chased 174. Batters, coming together, bailing out an attack that is missing key fast bowlers… is this Sri Lanka team allowed to do that? This is such a weird feeling. Check the rules. Almost knocking India out of a multi-team tournament? Used to happen all the time in the 90s, but this is the Big-Three dominant, IPL-crazy, Tik-Tok age. This is like an ant colony taking down a state-of-the-art missile base.
But could it be that Sri Lanka are finding new weapons themselves, a grueling transition having given way to an age of discovery? Pathum Nissanka would be a find for any team - he's showed promise in Tests, but now begun to put performances together in T20Is. Man struggled through the first over against Bhuvneshwar Kumar, but refused to panic. He pushed a four past fine leg next over, pumped Bhuvneshwar down the ground the over after that, backed away and lofted Hardik Pandya for six soon after, and by the end of the powerplay, was on 33 off 21.
He was out for 52 off the 37th delivery he faced, doing pretty much exactly what a batter in that situation should be doing. The opening partnership had propelled Sri Lanka to 97 off 11 overs. Hit more boundaries, raise the run rate, canter to that finish if you can, because there are only nine overs left, but plenty of batting resources in the tank. So you get out trying reverse sweep legspinner Yuzvendra Chahal. Were you hitting with the spin? That's sensible batting.
There are others. Dilshan Madushanka, a rapid left-arm quick who swings the ball into the right-hand batters, and against India flattened the stumps twice (including knocking two of Virat Kohli's out of the ground). Having debuted in this tournament, he has an economy rate of 7.38 and could become Dushmantha Chameera's fast-bowling partner at the T20 World Cup next month.
In Bhanuka Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka seem to have discovered a reliable middle-order hitter. And in Kusal Mendis, the top-order operator every good T20 side needs. In Sri Lanka's three successive victories, Mendis has crashed 153 runs off 93 deliveries - a strike rate of 165 to go with that average of 51. In this innings, he nailed all manner of shots - an inside-out swish over extra cover off R Ashwin, a smoked cover drive off Arshdeep Singh, a delicate uppercut against Bhuvneshwar to collect the four that took him to his fifty.
It helps that the guy tying all this together is the captain. Dasun Shanaka is Sri Lanka's best T20 batter in 2022, but in this match, also bowled unselfishly. With Asitha Fernando struggling, he delivered one over at the death, which he does not have the tools to do. Although he got Hardik out in that over, he leaked 17 runs. Still, it was clear he had bowled it to bail out his team.
No one will call him a tactical genius. He just does the job for now. And under him, Sri Lanka have been more vibrant, more boisterous, and more relentless than they have been in years.
A team that is discovering new heroes; rediscovering itself.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf