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Feature

Can spluttering Sri Lanka get up to full speed at the World Cup Qualifier?

They are capable of beating the best but also hold within themselves the capacity to capitulate anytime

Sri Lanka get together after a wicket, Sri Lanka vs Afghanistan, 2nd ODI, Hambantota, June 4, 2023

Sri Lanka beat Afghanistan 2-1 at home recently  •  AFP/Getty Images

Champions once, runners-up twice, a semi-final and quarter-final thrown in for good measure, and ever present in the tournament since making their first appearance in 1975. Safe to say, Sri Lanka's World Cup record is far from shabby. But now, for the first time in their history, they are in genuine danger of missing out altogether.
Unthinkable? Perhaps. Impossible? Not so much. But how did it come to this? Well, to get the obvious answer out of the way, quite frankly, they haven't been all that good.
Since the end of the 2019 World Cup, Sri Lanka have won just 18 of 42 ODIs, out of which 23 were part of the World Cup Super League. Of those, they won seven.
Much of this dismal record is primarily down to their batting. In this period, Sri Lanka have crossed the 300-mark just nine times, and struggled in nearly every key batting metric.
Dot-ball percentage in the last ten overs? 38.26%. Scoring rate in that phase? A mere 7.38, putting them ninth out of 12 Test-playing nations; only Zimbabwe, Ireland and Afghanistan have been worse - two of them they will likely be facing in the qualifiers.
What about overs 11-40 then, that crucial middle-over period? Again they dwell near the bottom, eighth this time, striking at 5.02 per over with half (50.52%) of the balls they faced being dots.
But it must also be noted that Sri Lanka had a particularly rough set of fixtures for this World Cup Super League cycle. Four of the eight series they played were against India, South Africa, England and New Zealand - the last two away from home.
While they won just one of those, what really dented their chances were the away defeats to Bangladesh and West Indies. And yet, this is a side that has beaten both South Africa and Australia at home - the latter series, as luck would have it, was not part of the Super League - and most recently strung together some impressive displays against Afghanistan - also at home - a team that comfortably qualified for the World Cup.
This, in a nutshell, is the story of Sri Lankan cricket over the last few years. Stifling lows mixed with thrilling highs. Not quite good enough for automatic qualification for the World Cup, but certainly not bad enough to rule out entirely.
So, here they are, in Zimbabwe to play a bunch of qualifiers, in conditions that will not even remotely resemble what they are likely to face in India later this year - provided they qualify of course.

Any mitigating factors?

Covid-19 meant that, despite his best intentions and enthusiasm, former head coach Mickey Arthur was hamstrung from the get-go. Tasked with revitalising the side after an abysmal showing at the 2019 World Cup, attempts to build trust and camaraderie while simultaneously trying to improve results was an entirely new challenge with social distancing, bio-bubbles and lockdowns thrown into the mix.
It was around this time that Sri Lanka Cricket also sought to usher in a more youth-centric policy, which has continued under Arthur's replacement Chris Silverwood. The move, in fairness, paid dividends with Sri Lanka emerging as surprise Asia Cup winners last year, albeit in the T20 format. But in ODIs, there have only been glimpses of that same promise. A series whitewash at the hands of India at the start of the year, including a record 317-run defeat, was a particularly demoralising nadir.
Injuries too have played their part, with in-form Kusal Perera and Avishka Fernando missing a large chunk of Super League games. But more than that, it has been the absence of Dushmantha Chameera that has hurt. In Chameera, Sri Lanka have on their hands one of the world's premier seamers, one who is able to execute precise plans at an express pace. A fit Chameera - whose workload is being carefully managed - will be at the forefront of any Sri Lankan success in the coming weeks and months.

So what are their chances?

On the face of it, it should be straightforward. While this is not Sri Lanka's first qualifying experience - they had to qualify for the T20 World Cup last year - it is the first time they have been required to do so in the 50-over format.
The first round is unlikely to provide much trouble with Ireland likely to be the toughest opponents in a group that also has Scotland, UAE and Oman. It's in the next stage, though, that the potential banana skins may arise.
Barring any surprises, Sri Lanka's likely opponents in the Super Six round will be West Indies, hosts Zimbabwe, and one of Netherlands, Nepal or USA. The first two should provide the biggest challenge but one that this Sri Lanka side should be able to overcome.
However, if the past few years have shown anything, it is that this is a team capable of beating the best but also holds within itself the capacity to capitulate suddenly and frantically. It is why Sri Lanka's loyal fanbase goes into these games with a grizzled sense of trepidation. A well-oiled machine, they are not. Rather, one that's spluttering up to full speed, duct tape at the ready, hoping the wheels don't come off, as they seek to build up a head of steam to power them through.