A freer dressing room culture and a renewed focus on fitness helped improve Sri Lanka's fielding in the recent series against West Indies, interim head coach Jerome Jayaratne said.
Slipping fielding standards had been a major area of concern for Sri Lanka in 2015. In January, captain Angelo Mathews had said the team's poor catching cost them the Wellington Test match, before Sri Lanka's fielding drew yet more criticism during the World Cup, most notably from then-chief selector Sanath Jayasuriya. Chances continued to be spilt during mid-year series against Pakistan and India, but the team has been credited with a better fielding performance against West Indies. Jayaratne said giving players freedom to make mistakes was vital in bringing change.
"I said I was going to bring in a policy at the beginning of the series, which was to try and catch even half-chances," Jayaratne said. "I don't care whether you drop catches and any dropped catch will not be discussed hereafter. The players started to believe in themselves and were not afraid to drop anything. They gave it their best shot."
Jayaratne said the dressing room atmosphere was "not all that good" when he took over as head coach. "The root of it was they were scared to drop catches. When I spoke to them individually, they preferred the catch going to the next man, rather than to them. Tillakaratne Dilshan likes the ball coming to him and he enjoys fielding. If you don't find the means to psychologically enjoy fielding, you will never be a good fielder."
Sri Lanka earned their first trophies this year with big victories in the Test and ODI series against West Indies, but the upcoming away tour to New Zealand shapes as a key test for a transitioning team, and as an audition for its acting coach. Players have spoken out in support of Jayaratne so far, and the board is presently considering extending his tenure until the end of the World T20 in April. If the upcoming series go well, Sri Lanka Cricket may consider keeping Jayaratne in the role permanently.
"The New Zealand tour will be a very stiff test for us," Jayaratne said. "New Zealand have been playing good cricket from about a couple of years. It's good for us especially to play under their conditions. It will show what our guys are made of at the moment."
The selection panel, headed by Kapila Wijegunawardene, have also shifted focus to the New Zealand series, which Wijegunawardene described as a "watershed tour". He said the West Indies series had helped settle a new Test XI, but hinted the selectors would consider their options for the No. 3 position vacated by Kumar Sangakkara. Lahiru Thirimanne had earlier been groomed to take up that role, but has had a mediocre Test record so far.
"What we planned earlier for the No. 3 spot is not quite working out the way we anticipated," Wijegunawardene said. "We will be open to making a few experiments in that position to see who best needs to be slotted in there. We're going through some of the performances from the 'A' team. There is some element of risk which is being forced on us when trying to identify the right player for the line-up." Wijegunawardene named Udara Jayasundera, Kithuruwan Vithanage and Kusal Mendis as the players they have in mind for the spot.
Thirimanne is not being discarded altogether from the Test set-up, however. "It's a matter of getting his confidence back for Thirimanne. It can happen to every player now and again. He needs to work on his technical flaws and get his confidence back," Wijegunawardene said.