If you look at a certain set of statistics, you'd think Sri Lanka were T20 World Cup kings. In the history of this tournament, they have won more T20 World Cup games (25) than any other side, their win/loss percentage of 2.083 unmatched. They have reached the final in half of the six World Cups played. And they have produced some of the World Cup's most iconic performances.
But such has been their rate of decline since 2014 (when they won), that they were forced to qualify for the main draw this time. They arrive in the Super 12s ranked tenth in the world, having won only two of their last 12 bilateral T20I series. Since the last T20 World Cup, they have had at least five captains in the format. Although their ODI and Test cricket has also suffered substantially over the past few years, T20Is have been Sri Lanka's worst format.
That is not to say they are a write-off in this World Cup, however, because just over the past few months, a focus on youth, fielding, and fitness may have set in motion the beginnings of a reawakening. As with the greatest Sri Lanka T20I sides, bowling is this team's strength, with plenty of variety on that front. There is no question that they dominated all batting orders they came across in the first round, dismissing Namibia for 96, Ireland for 101, and Netherlands for 44. The batting is fragile, but it is no longer as toothless as it was, say, two years ago.
Still, not a lot is expected of Sri Lanka in this tournament. Perhaps it is a cliché, but it is possible the team will find that liberating.
Although their top order was in disarray at times, there were contributions from the middle order through the course of various practice matches and the first round over the last few weeks. Against the kinds of sides they will face in the Super 12s, though, their record over the past three years is exceedingly poor.
There's not a lot of firepower here. Kusal Perera bears a lot of the hitting burden in the powerplay, but comes into the tournament off some long injury layoffs. He had not been in outstanding form before the injuries in any case. Avishka Fernando can be destructive, but needs a quiet early period to work himself into his innings. And although Dasun Shanaka has been an excellent finisher at the domestic level, he hasn't yet figured out how to produce finishing fireworks consistently in internationals.
It may not be a stretch to suggest Sri Lanka's is one of the more dynamic attacks around, provided the frontliners all stay fit - spin frontman Wanindu Hasaranga has a niggle. Dushmantha Chameera and Lahiru Kumara were the quickest bowlers in the qualifying stage - Chameera breaching 150kph and clocking 145kph-plus regularly, while Kumara was also usually well into the 140s. Maheesh Theekshana, the mystery spinner, is yet to truly be worked out at the top level. Chamika Karunaratne adds some dependable seam bowling. And Hasaranga is deservingly the No. 2-ranked T20I bowler.
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Who else but Hasaranga? His googly has been Sri Lanka's primary wicket-taking weapon over the past 18 months. He almost never goes wicketless, and goes for runs even less often. He has already showed off his batting prowess in this tournament as well, hitting 71 off 47 balls from No. 5 to rescue Sri Lanka following a top-order collapse against Ireland. On top of all of it, he is a livewire in the field. A potential matchwinner on all three fronts.
Sri Lanka were excellent in the first round, but will that momentum transfer into the Super 12s, where they will not only face much higher quality opposition, but also teams that will have done extensive research on the various members of Sri Lanka's attack. How long will Theekshana's mystery survive under this more intense microscope? Can Chameera and Kumara keep bowling this fast with a hectic two-week schedule coming up? And even if the bowlers are good (and they have performed even against the top teams this year), will Sri Lanka's batters cede too much ground for them to make a difference?