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Feature

Five key issues new Sri Lanka coach Chris Silverwood must address

Dealing with the language barrier one of the main tasks as Silverwood, Sri Lanka focus on redemption

Chris Silverwood watches on, England vs New Zealand, T20 World Cup, 1st semi-final, Abu Dhabi, November 10, 2021

Chris Silverwood's first assignment will be the tour of Bangladesh in May  •  ICC via Getty

It's not often that a team appoints a head coach to as little fanfare among supporters as Sri Lanka have just done, but such is the precarious state of the nation at the moment that Chris Silverwood's appointment has flown almost entirely under the radar.
But, in many ways, that's probably to Silverwood's advantage; both he and the team are coming off some poor results. Sri Lanka suffered heavy back-to-back defeats in the Test and T20I series against Australia and India, while Silverwood was sacked as the England men's team's head coach after England's 4-0 Ashes series defeat.
Therefore, focusing on the future without much media glare is probably a good thing.
Silverwood's first chance at putting his mark on the side will be a two-Test tour of Bangladesh in May, but with a month until then and, more importantly, roughly six months till Sri Lanka's T20 World Cup campaign begins in Australia, here are five things he will need to address.
Solving the Rajapaksa problem
In most circumstances, a player on the fringes of the national side hitting form would be fairly ideal for a new coach. But in the case of Bhanuka Rajapaksa, who has just seen his stock rise considerably following a couple of blistering knocks in the IPL, it's seemingly another obstacle for the new man in charge to navigate.
Rajapaksa is a talented batter, one who could be an invaluable asset to Sri Lanka's limited-overs outfit, but his fitness levels have always been found wanting - leading to more than a few tussles with the team management.
Rajapaksa has admitted that he wouldn't be near the fitness levels of some of his more athletic peers, but his argument was that sudden weight loss causes him to lose balance while batting, and that might hold some merit. As things stand, he falls short purely on skinfold testing.
While this may seem easy enough to overlook, the flipside is that the minimum fitness mandate implemented rigorously by SLC has seen Sri Lanka's fielding improve markedly - even if results as a whole have been less encouraging. So the question for Silverwood would be: is the inclusion of Rajapaksa worth it if it gives his team-mates an excuse to slack off? Or, perhaps, the solution may lay in devising more equitable fitness metrics. Whatever he decides, it will likely set the tone for the rest of his tenure.
Communication will be key
Even during Sri Lanka's best periods in the last two decades, there has been the sense that overseas coaches, for all their goodwill and willingness to embrace Sri Lanka culture, were never truly in control of the team's tactical and strategic planning.
Now, this is not to suggest the players didn't listen, rather that tactical presentations communicated in English might not have always been fully grasped by all involved. Anecdotal evidence is indeed rife of players discussing and changing various team strategies in their native tongue, only for the coach to be made abreast of all the new changes later.
Of course, it's not unusual for senior members of a squad to play the role of translator to a foreign coach, but it's obvious that this might impact the coach's plans.
This will be Silverwood's first job coaching a team where the first language isn't English, and while he has obvious pedigree, ensuring clear two-way communication will be key.
Bailing out the batters
Sri Lanka's T20 captain Dasun Shanaka has recently found his range, while the likes of Chamika Karunaratne and Wanindu Hasaranga also offer great lower-order hitting prowess. But it's about finding consistency in the top order that will determine how far this team can go.
In players like Pathum Nissanka, Charith Asalanka, Danushka Gunathilaka and Kusal Mendis, Sri Lanka have the talent. However, ensuring regular output from them has been elusive.
Rotating strike has been a problem in recent times - Sri Lanka's dot-ball percentage is unenviable - while there is also a tendency to get starts and then falter. While England's red-ball batters came undone under Silverwood's watch in the Ashes, their white-ball counterparts have been among the best in the world. If he's able to coax consistency out of Sri Lanka's batters, he'll already be ahead of his predecessors.
Boon for the bowlers?
Silverwood, a fast bowler himself during his playing days, was originally drafted into the England set-up as a bowling coach and has had first-hand experience working with two of the finest fast bowlers in their history: James Anderson and Stuart Broad. It wouldn't be surprising if the likes of Dushmantha Chameera and Lahiru Kumara are most excited by Silverwood's appointment.
The two quicks are now Sri Lanka's frontline seamers in all formats, following the retirement of Suranga Lakmal. While Chameera was the leading ODI wicket-taker in 2021, Kumara has been less consistent, struggling to hit his lengths when called upon to bowl at the death in the shortest format. However, he did have impressive tours of Australia and India, picking up nine wickets across five T20Is.
Kumara's improved performance was brought on by a change in tactics, where he was used primarily through the middle overs and asked to bowl more back of a length - something that allowed him to extract extra bounce to go with his rapid pace. If Silverwood can add more strings to Kumara's bow, Sri Lanka could possibly pose a real threat in world cricket through him and Chameera.
And with Hasaranga and Maheesh Theekshana also in Sri Lanka's ranks, Silverwood definitely has a lot to work with.
Going beyond Karunaratne
While Silverwood's immediate priority would be preparing the side for the T20 World Cup later this year, he would also want to focus on the Test team. The recent away series against India, in which Sri Lanka lost 2-0, showed how far behind the team was in the long format, especially against the top teams.
Last year, they won back-to-back home series against Bangladesh and West Indies, while the team also drew a series in the Caribbean. Indeed, the only blemishes in 2021 were defeats away to South Africa and at home to England.
That, incidentally, coincided with an injury to Dimuth Karunaratne, whose four centuries in 2021, including a maiden double - 244 against Bangladesh - saw him rise to fifth in the Test batting rankings by March. There is no other Sri Lankan batter in the top 20.
If Sri Lanka are to put up an improved showing in the current World Test Championship cycle, Silverwood would want to address the team's over-reliance on Karunaratne.