Sydney Pardon, one of the most famous Wisden Editors once summed up England selections so ruthlessly; in the 1910 Alamanack, he pointed out selections in the previous summer had ‘touched the confines of lunacy.’
Sri Lanka’s World Cup selections could be categorized with something similar as five players who hadn’t featured in an ODI for more than 18 months were chosen for the sport’s showpiece event.
But the point is how the players rose to the occasion, despite the chaos! They came up with a stunning performance to beat tournament favourites, England, at Headingley, the Yorkshire cricket ground, one of the fortresses of British sport.
This was something well-nigh impossible. England is the world’s number one ranked team. Sri Lanka, ranked ninth, came into the game in total shambles. Their premier batsman, Angelo Mathews had managed only nine runs after five games including two ducks. He chose Headingley to return to form at England’ expense.
What is it with Angelo Mathews and Headingley? Five years ago, he had produced a magical 160 batting with the tail to set up Sri Lanka’s first ever Test series win in England. Then on Friday, he assessed the conditions early, told his team mates not to think of posting targets in the range of 300 but instead to focus on 240 and delivered the goods with an unbeaten 85. He is a master tactician.
The Spectator asked Mathews whether he would consider naming his next child Headingley? Mathews smiled and replied, ‘I will certainly think about it.’
A rookie set the stage for Mathews. People had hardly heard about Avishka Fernando, and it was he, who put the bowlers under pressure sending the thunderbolts of Jofra Archer and Mark Wood over the fence with immaculate timing. Fernando is 21. Kusal Mendis is 24 and there aren’t many young players in world cricket at the moment other than these two, who play some proper cricketing shots.
Mendis already has seven international hundreds. Aravinda de Silva, the greatest batsman produced by Sri Lanka, didn’t even have half the number of hundreds that Mendis has at the age of 24. Kumar Sangakkara, an equally accomplished batsman fared much worse. Add Niroshan Dickwella, who is 26 into the midst and Sri Lankan cricket is in safe hands for the next ten years, despite all the bungling, chaos and mismanagement.
Lasith Malinga, in the twilight of his career was superb, too. Wickets with the new ball and wickets with the old ball, he helped Sri Lanka defended 233. England has fast bowlers who touch 150 kmph. Malinga barely touches 135kmph these days. Over the years, he has lost a considerable amount of pace. But, what he possesses is a canny ability to outsmart the batsman. Despite his age, he has become a thorn in the flesh of many a batsman.
England has one of the best cricketing structures and came into the tournament well prepared. They will be envious of how Sri Lanka raised the standards at the big occasion. Mind you, Sri Lanka has not lost a World Cup game to England in 20 years. Despite investing so much money in the game and having one of the best cricket structures, England has failed to enter a World Cup final for more than a quarter century now. At the same time, Sri Lankans have reached three World Cup finals.
The good news for Sri Lanka is that some of their top performers are yet to fire. Peaking at the right time is so important in big tournaments. Kusal Janith Perera helped his team rewrite the history books three months ago scoring a fabulous 153 not out as Sri Lanka became the first Asian nation to win a Test series in South Africa. You sense that a big score for him is just around the corner in this tournament.
Another southpaw, Thisara Perera has been decent with the ball but hasn’t done anything significant with the bat. With his brutal batting early this year in New Zealand, he hurt the pride of a few bowlers. Sri Lanka will be counting on him when they get to the business at end of the competition.
All is not tickety-boo with Sri Lankan cricket, though. The 52-day government (October 2018) inflicted some huge blows to the game. Not that the Yahapalana grandees were covering themselves in glory. Dinesh Chandimal had been groomed as captain to take this team to the World Cup. He was not only shown the door in December but also axed from the team. Chandimal’s fault was being loyal to his Head Coach.
Those close to the Rajapaksa regime seized on the opportunity (October 2018) and did everything within their means to clip Chandika Hathurusingha’s wings to settle old scores. Batting Coach Tilan Samaraweera was sacked. Psychologist Dr. Phil Jauncy was told his services were not required. Players like Dickwella, Dasun Shanaka and Akila Dananjaya on whom Hathurusingha had depended on heavily were shown the door as well.
Hathurusingha is excellent at crisis management. He has promised to deliver the goods with the resources he has been given and has done a fine job. Sri Lanka could have achieved wonders had he been given the fullest backing. Don’t believe us. Just look at what Bangladesh has gone on to achieve.
There was a storm of a protest in Bangladesh when Hathurusingha dropped their star performer Shakib Al Hasan on disciplinary grounds. The Bangladesh Board told him not to upset the applecart as Shakib was the world’s number one all-rounder. Hathurusingha then asked whether they wanted to have the best all-rounder in the world or wanted to become the best team in the world. The message was loud and clear. Sanity prevailed. In this World Cup, Bangladesh has already beaten South Africa and West Indies and came close to beating New Zealand and Australia.
It is said that a prophet is not recognised in his own country!