Thursday, 11 February 2016

Sri Lanka's Love affair with school cricket

Royal College 1st XI vs Wesley College 1st XI at Campbell Park

Wesleyite pacer Helitha Bambaranda floats one on a full length to the left handed Geeshanth Panditharatne, teasing him in to a drive, dangling a carrot outside off, looking for the edge. The red ball is only 9 overs old, and the Royalists are already two down for not much, yet the Royal skipper does not hesitate in leaning in to a cover drive and dispatching the ball to the grass banks of Campbell Park. There is a touch of poetry and majestic elegance to the whole ordeal. It's 10.30am in Colombo and midnight in Waterloo, Ontario. After a combined total of about 15 hours through the whole week, I find my self staying awake, staring in to my laptop screen. Because March Madness is here, and the games are on!  

Sri Lanka's love for the timeless game, through the ages, has been one of fantasy and fairy tale in nature. From the streets and ally ways to the open paddy fields, there is no lack of abundance in the number of games of cricket being played in the island. May it be hardball, or softball or even at times with a piece of paper rolled in to a rather odd spheroid, cricket is played and loved with a passion that even the inventors of the game can often be jealous of. But Sri Lanka's love for school cricket specifically, is a whole other romance novel altogether. 

Let alone the one bump games in the class rooms and interval cricket carnivals, age group level cricket in Sri Lankan schools play a major role in building School spirit and enhancing comradery, not only with those within, but with also with those in other schools. The papare bands, the flag flutterers and the flag flickers, the cycle parades, and the crowd packed big matches, all have added unique essence to this story of utmost passion and love for both cricket and for Alma Mater. From age group level ranging from under 11s to the under 19s, cricket is by far the most competitive sport at school levels as well, and easily the most watched and followed. School boy cricketer of the year awards, college colours awards, and big matches highlight a school boy cricketer's career, while drawing awe from his school mates, creating heroes and legacies that even outlive the cricketers themselves. Therefore there is no question as to how much enthusiasm and hype there is created towards the month of March and the "Big match season". To an avid cricket fan, and to the school boy and old boy alike, there is much to look forward to.

A school cricket match in Sri Lanka could not be anymore different than just a regular school cricket match.
It is so much more than just a school event.
And it is even more so much than just a cricket match.
Young Pasindu Sooriyabandara is only 16 years old, and already he's laid a premise as to what sort of prodigious talent he holds, notching up two centuries in his debut 1st XI season. He gets one rising right around his nose which he rocks back and hooks towards the boundary. The fielder at fine leg runs across, puts in a full length dive and gets his hands to it, but cannot hold on. The ball rolls in to the ropes. Cricket is a game of such fine margins. A couple of years ago young Pasindu would not have dreamed of playing in front of camera's and his name being mentioned in live commentary. Certainly, not before the big match, at least. But Sri Lanka's love for school cricket has grown so much that the desire to see more school games has been timely fed with live streams and ball-by-ball commentary, not just in the big-matches but also in a selected few regular season matches. Pasindu gets out in the next over. His story has only just begun, and he has a long way to go. But one thing is for certain, he has made massive strides in his path. And with the introduction of the live streams, so has schools cricket in Sri Lanka.

How lovely it would have been, a couple of years ago, to see some of these regular season games at the touch of your fingertips. Big matches feature the biggest schools and the biggest rivalries, but sometimes, the best in game rivalries between players, are not necessarily in the big matches them selves. A 2009 Ananda College vs Trinity College would have featured two of the best schools batsmen at the time in Dinesh Chandimal and Udara Jayasundera up against arguably the best spin bowling duo at a school level since Piyal Wijetunga and Muththia Muralidaran, in Rushan Jaleel and Akila Jayasundera. Or a 2010 game between Royal College vs St. Sebestians' College, which would have featured the Sri Lanka u19 top order of Bhanuka Rajapakse, Kithuruwan Vithanage and Ramith Rambukwella, tussling it out against the Sri Lanka U19 pacemen Sanitha De Mel and Vishwa Fernando. The legend of the superstar all rounder that never made it in the national circuit, in Wesley's own Ryan Kern. The 1000 runs and 100 wickets double of Shameera Weerasinghe of St Josephs. Don't even get me started on the St. Peter's lot. Angelo Perera, Shevanga Ranasooriya, Chathura Pieris, Akshu Fernando, Andri Berenger and all the rest of them. 

A Sri Lankan's love and loyalty towards their school, and the passion and adoration for the game of cricket, entwines and combines to morph in to these majestic fairy tale events called big matches. The class of the Trinity-Anthony's, the flair of the DS-Mahanama, the camaradarie of the Richmond-Mahinda, the pure quality of the Joe-Pete, the unparalleled brotherhood of the Ananda-Nalanda and the unmatched traditions of the mother of them all; the Royal-Thomian, have all added their own distinct chapters and story-lines in to this massive romance novel of Sri Lankan schools cricket. At times, it is far greater than that of the international level game, and definitely more endearing and closer to the heart of the Sri Lankan cricket fan.

Royal move on to a commanding score, beyond 150 for the loss of 3, with the aid of Geeshanth and his deputy Thiran Dhanapala. But these games are valued far beyond just scores and results. This is the first real taste for these cricketers of competitive cricket at a level when there are more than just your coaches and parents watching. When the expectations are not just in the dressing room and and at the dining table. When the pundits and experts aren't just old coaches, and past cricketers, but also 12 year olds with flags taller than their own height, and old boys with attitude and "glorious pasts". This is their first taste of the passion of spectators for the game they play. 

And now with their names, and their performances, their repertoire of shots while batting and artillery of variations while bowling, all available to anyone who wishes to tune in via a live stream, the love story of schools cricket in Sri Lanka has begun a new chapter. And it is one that promises a whole lot to look forward to.

Specially to those who's hearts are so near, yet the eyes so far. 

Cheers.
Kumma

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

A New Crop with a New Attitude

Sri Lanka v West Indies, 1st Test. Galle

A bright ray of sunlight glistens upon the ramparts of the Galle fort. Lengthy shadows loom over the players, a cool evening breeze relaxes them while also giving a slight chill. It sets the tone for Sri Lanka cricket's current state of affairs. The sun has set. Shadows of retired legends loom over the younger generation. A calming, yet fear inducing breeze of responsibility blows over them. But as often as the sun sets, it also inevitably rises the next morning.

A charismatic left hander crunches artistic cover drives to the boundary. An equally flamboyant right hander aesthetically guides the ball down to third man. The West Indian fast bowlers run in to bowl, and walk back towards their marks in almost a cyclic procession, most of the time with hands on their hips. The lone spinner is being carted to every corner of the ground. They have put on over 200 runs together. Both go on to make 150+ scores. Only a few months ago, only one such pair existed in the Sri Lankan batting line up. Sangakkara-Jayawardane would have been the only name that would be able to follow up to that description. But on this day in Galle, it was Dimuth Karunaratne and Dinesh Chandimal who had lit up the city by the sea.

Dimuth is an artist with the bat. A kind of artist who you know can paint as well as Picasso, but never seems to finish his work. But on the off day that he does, it is a sight to savor. To watch such an innings is a pleasure that needs to be cherished and relished. He has made his highest test score, and perhaps the most enjoyable knock so far in his relatively short career. It could be argued that his century in New Zealand, on a 4th innings pitch, against what probably is the best new ball pairing in the world was a much more tougher, grittier and a more crucial innings, but simply on pure aesthetic brilliance, this innings trumps all that has preceded it. 

Chandimal is a contrast. His approach batting is one of authority. Of dominance and aggression. Take nothing away from his stroke-play, but his sheer ability to take the attack to the bowler overwhelms any technical skill he can ever showcase. Russel Arnold mentions in the commentary box that Chandimal has evolved in to an attacking player. From having changed in to a technical, and a steady batsman, he has found his comfort zone as an aggressor and has returned to it. Although this maybe news to Russel, if he asked any Anandian who watched their 1st XI cricket team between the years of 2007 and 2009, they will tell you that this is the Chandi that they know, and the only Chandi that they have ever known. Chandimal is a top 4 batsman. He is also an attacking top 4 batsman, who has strokes to reach any corner of the ground, to any bowler. Chandimal knows it. So does anyone who has followed his career closely. It is the selectors who needed to realize it. 

Most of all, the pair look relaxed at the crease. The whole team looks relaxed. In the dressing room, and out on the field.

Nuwan Pradeep has bowled a long, tiring spell from the fort end. He takes a rest at fine-leg, but is called back to his mark to bowl one more over. He wipes the sweat from his brow, huffs and puffs towards the crease, and delivers a peach from round the wicket to the left handed Darren Bravo, just outside off, on a length. Bravo has to play at it, and the ball just about leaves him, but kisses the edge. It is a picturesque dismissal for a fast bowler. "SIRAAAAAAA", screams Mathews at first slip as he runs in to hug Pradeep. Sira is short for Sirasa, Pradeep's nickname he earned by being picked in the national side via a soft ball competition organized by Sirasa TV. At the other end, Milinda Siriwardane is pushing darts through to the batsman's pads. Kusal encourages him on. "Come on bambara!". It is a reference to a music video Milinda was a part of. Everyone is on a nickname basis. It is not a privilege being used by just the seniors. From captain Mathews, to Kusal who is only playing is 2nd test, refers to his team mates in their nick names. They are a bunch of friends playing together. Relaxed. And enjoying the game.

After a long standing era of ayyas and mallis,
Sri Lanka cricket has evolved in to a team of equals.
A bunch of friends, enjoying the game.
Sri Lanka's cricket culture has always been built on a bilateral relationship between the "Ayyas" and the "Mallis". From junior levels, through club and provincial, right up to the national team, the ayya-malli relationship is what defines the outline of the team's culture. The Ayyas have all the authority, and demand respect. In turn, they take care of the mallis, groom them, and help them in difficult situations. It is a rather symbiotic relationship, but a very daunting one for a youngster. Something that expects more from him than just cricket. With the ayyas now having retired, the ones that are left are all only separated by a couple of years. They have almost all played in the schools circuits during the same 3-4 year period between 2006 to 2009. They represent a more easygoing, impulsive and brash generation. And it shows in their cricket. Above all, it shows in their team spirit.

But not all the team members are as young and brash. Rangana Herath is only a few games away from retirement. He is the last remaining "ayya" of the team. He warms up to bowl the next over. "Range ayye, welawa aran adaganna. Hadissiyak na", says Mathews. He tells Herath to take his time and stretch, and that there's no rush. There is respect in those words. Also concern, towards a champion bowler, and a senior citizen in the team who needs to be looked after. Herath prods to the crease, swivels his body weight as slowly as a Leyland lorry taking a bend, and bowls a rubbish half-tracker. Marlon Samuels tries to hoick it in to the Indian ocean, but he misses the ball altogether, and it strikes his thigh pad and rolls on to the stumps. Kaushal Silva at short leg jumps on to him in delight. Herath winks. He knows it's a rubbish ball. But is reaction is what brings a smile to the team's face. In a team full of energetic, fun loving, youngsters, this old soul is no misfit. 

Sri Lanka's win against West Indies was rather an easy one, and also an emphatic one. It will only make their team spirit stronger. But tough times are ahead, and defeats will be inevitable, with tours to England and South Africa in the vicinity. Yet the thing to most look forward to, about this new crop of players and their new approach towards the game, is that when you are playing with your friends, at the end of any series or tournament, regardless of whether you win or lose, your friendship will still remain, and you will continue to be the same bunch of friends. These friendships will spark enough enjoyment for them to be inspired to be better, not just as a team, but also as individuals.

Tough tides, yet bright skies ahead.
Cheers,
Kumma

Thursday, 20 August 2015

The Break Up of a Love-Hate Relationship

Sri Lanka v India, 2nd Test, P. Sara Oval

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Cognitive Dissonance; 
the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change. Simply, it is how you could absolutely love a person to bits, and yet have qualities that you despise to the core. Benito Mussolini banned Jazz music in Italy during its Axis years. Jazz music was said to be vile due to it's African origin, Jewish popularity and liberative and radical themes. Yet, Mussolini was a massive Jazz fan. His fourth son Romano, went on to become one of the most famous Jazz pianists in the world. Jazz caused Mussolini to be inconsistent, and hypocritical. It is said that only Humans are capable of such complex contemplation.
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It is the morning of a week day in 2003. The Sri Lankan cricket team has returned from South Africa after a rather disappointing World Cup performance, losing to Kenya, and being pummeled by both India and Australia in the Super Six stages, and losing the semi final against Australia after being in an extremely commanding position. Australia made 212 in their 50 overs in that game. 91 of them coming off Andrew Symonds' bat, who was given a life when he hadn't even crossed double figures by Kumar Sangakkara, who missed the easiest stumping chance in the world. To make it worse up on him self, he then ran out Aravinda De Silva in what was the Sri Lankan World Cup hero from 1996's last ODI game ever. The memory still lingers in the mind of the avid cricket fan, but on that morning in 2003, it was as fresh as the dew on Torrington Square, which we drive past on my way to school. The Sri Lankan cricket team is having a jog. A van carrying school boys go past them. "GANDASTHAAARAAAAAAA", a boy shouts. It roughly translates to Stinker, and it echoes through the team, and all those around. It is aimed at Kumar Sangakkara. Kumar Sangakkara is a villain.

Four years later, I wake up at 6am to watch the Sri Lanka vs Australia 2nd Test at Hobart. Overnight, Sri Lanka had ended at 247/3, Sangakkara 103* and Jayasuriya 33*. They needed 260 runs to win their first test in Australian soil, and with 7 wickets in hand, Sri Lankan fans had grown hopeful. I switch on the TV. I check the wickets column before I check the score. 8 down. Game over. I check the score. 302/8. Sangakkara on 148 not out. He dances down the track to Stuart Clark, and whacks him over cover. He does it again. And again. At least once every over. He makes 192, the highest score by a Sri Lankan batsman in Australia. Rudi Koertzen gives him out caught behind, off his helmet. Sangakkara is livid as he knows he had a chance to win the game for Sri Lanka. But it is not to be. Sri Lanka lose by 96 runs. Kumar Sangakkara has perhaps played the most memorable innings by a Sri Lankan, even more so than Sanath's 340 or Mahela's 374. Kumar Sangakkara is a great batsman. He may not be a villain now, but he is not yet a hero.

In December 2009, my best friend and my self are studying for Advanced Level exams. We have 8 months to go, and we don't know jacksh*t. Yet, with a pocket radio, we are listening to a Sri Lanka vs India game at Rajkot. India have scored 414, the highest total against Sri Lanka in an ODI. Upul Tharanga and TM Dilshan make 180 in 22 overs. Tharanga gets out. Sangakkara strides in. No one expects him to score quicker than Tharanga, let alone Dilshan. No one expects him to smother the bowlers over the ropes as he wishes. But he does. He plays a blitzkrieg innings of 91 off 43 balls. He gets out, and a procession follows and Sri Lanka end up losing by just 3 runs. But Kumar Sangakkara has played the most defining innings of his career. He has evolved in to the complete modern day batsman. Yet, he is still not a hero.

In 2014 April, at a friend's house, me and my friends gather around his television to watch the final of the T20 World Cup against India. Sri Lanka are chasing 131 to win their first global silverware since 1996. Dilshan gets out; 41/2. But Sri Lanka have Mahela Jayawardane, their man for a crisis, the big game player, the only man who has centuries in a world cup final and a semi final. Sangakkara is also at the crease, but he is only there to play a supporting role to Mahela's world cup winning innings. 65/3. Mahela throws is away against part-time spinner Suresh Raina. And now, Sri Lanka are only left with Angelo Mathews, Sangakkara and the all rounders and bowlers. But Sangakkara bats like the man he always promised he would be. He bats till he gets a 50. And he bats till Sri Lanka win the world cup. He bats until he turns him self, and Mahela in to world champions. He bats until he has turned him self in to a hero.

Kumar Sangakkara is a hero. 

He was not born one. He was not earmarked as one as a school boy. He was not made in to one as he arrived or as he blossomed. But he batted and batted until he turned him self in to one; until everyone on the field, and everyone on the ground, and everyone watching at home knew for certain that he was one. 
Kumar Sangakkara; the consistent, the masterful, the eloquent. The Hero. 
Within this period, he had scored test hundreds in every country barring the West Indies, where he has only toured twice. He had captained Sri Lanka in two world cup finals. He had given the Collin Cowdrey Lecture, a speech in cricketing lore had been equalized to that of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. He had won the hearts of many. But not mine. Not for certain. There were times I loved him and times I hated him. There were times I loved that I hated him, and times that I hated that I loved him. Basically, Kumar Sangakkara and I have been having a Love-Hate relationship for 15 years, that he has no idea about. An unhealthy, cringe-worthy, teeth-grinding yet awe inspiring affair. Kumar Sangakkara is my proof for cognitive dissonance. I think I hate him, yet there are things about him that I absolutely love. And he will always remain to be a hero.

But such an unhealthy relationship must end. And on the last day of the this test, it will. Whether I like it or not, Kumar Sangakkara will walk out of the P.Sara Oval, and will never be seen again in a Sri Lankan jersey. And quite possibly, in a few years time, I will look back and say, he really was the best we ever had. And on that day, my relationship with him, and my cognitive dissonance, would have come one full circle.

Cheers Kumar,
Thank you for everything.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Why Do We Fall?

ICC Cricket World Cup, Australia & New Zealand, 2015

"Batman" is perhaps the most successful superhero movie franchise. Although Superman is probably the ultimate superhero, who as explained in Kill Bill; doesn't need an alter-ego to turn in to a superhero, and although X-Men may have the longest list of movies made about them, Christopher Nolan's Batman is miles and miles ahead of any other superhero movie franchise in the sense that it incorporates all the great aspects of a good movie; a great script, brilliant acting and most of all astounding cinematography. And "Why do we fall, Bruce?" is perhaps the most significant line in what is perhaps the best superhero trilogy movie series that will ever transpire upon us. 

In more than one way, Sri Lanka cricket has taken a fall in the months past. Apart from a two scrappy ODI wins against New Zealand, two very gritty test innings from Dimuth Karunaratne and Kumar Sangakkara, and a home drubbing of a depleted England side carrying Alistaire Cook's dead weight, Sri Lanka cricket hasn't had much to cheer about in the bygone months since November. Malinga's injury, Sachithra's action scandal and the lack of experience in the rest of the bowling attack bar Herath, is perhaps Sri Lanka's biggest concern. Chandimal's lack of form, Dimuth's questionable inclusion, Jeewan and Thisara's confused roles as all rounders have also added to Sri Lanka's misery, and if not for Thirimanne clicking as an opener, Sri Lanka's batting would also have been in disarray not just at the bottom of the order, but also at the top. Sri Lanka are still on paper one of the top four contenders for this world cup, but on recent performances, they might not even be rated in the top 8. 

But it is a fall that should not surprise us. Sri Lanka's three biggest match winners are at the twilight of their careers, and as every great era ends, it is bound stir up chaos. Between Sanga and Mahela, they have captained 4 world cup finals. Exclude Sanath Jayasuriya from the list, and Sanga, Mahela and Dilshan would top every One Day batting record in Sri Lanka from most runs to most hundreds. They are as of 2014, World Champions. The three of them have featured in 5 world cup finals for Sri Lanka. As far as franchises go, they are the Batman Trilogy of Sri Lanka Cricket. And when you are so successful as a franchise, as you come to your end, people tend to expect so much more. For me, Batman The Dark Knight Rises, was the poorest of the three batman movies. Yet, it was one of the best superhero movies I've ever watched. But for the Batmas series, since it is preceded by two legendary movies; "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight", "The Dark Knight Rises" was simply just not good enough. Specially, because it was the final installment of the series. Specially because, after that, it would be no more. Mahela, Sanga and Dilshan and Sri Lanka cricket face the same conundrum. Just like Christopher Nolan, they have simply out done themselves, and there is no ultimate finale they could ever come up with, that could completely satisfy the masses. 

In their 8th and last cricket world cup together,
Sanga, Mahela and Dilshan find themselves in need of a farewell script
that outdoes their illustrious careers.

Sri Lanka find them selves facing the two best sides of the world cup in their group stages, Australia and New Zealand. In England, they face the next best suited attack for the conditions. Bangladesh have caused an upset in every other world cup; 1999 not 2003. 2007 not 2011. The pattern suggests 2015 is their year to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Afghanistan are perhaps the most dangerous associate side in terms of attitude, and Scotland as West Indies found out the hard way, are not push overs either. Given the form of the players, given the group, and given the conditions, Sri Lanka's group stage fixture card is a formula for disaster. Therefore, like the fate of a franchise depends on a spin-off that saves a dying series, Sri Lanka's fate largely depends on not how Dilshan, Mahela and Sanga will perform, but on how much Angelo Mathews can squeeze out of the likes of Thirimanne, Jeewan, Thisara, Kulasekara and Herath. The fact of the matter is, if the big three fail, 9 out of 10 times Sri Lanka will lose. But even if the big three perform, without significant support from the rest, Sri Lanka will not go too far. Players will win you matches, but it is teams that win tournaments.

Therefore after a rather inauspicious start to what seems to be an extremely tough tournament, Sri Lanka will need to put the losses to South Africa and Zimbabwe behind them and learn what they can learn. If Chandimal is under-performing, Dimuth has proved he's a capable number 4, with Mahela and Angelo shifting down one spot each. Death bowling is the biggest concern, and if Malinga is injured, Sri Lanka need to figure out which one of Angelo, Thisara or Lakmal should partner Kulasekara at the end. Or maybe roll the dice with Chameera. And Jeewan needs to bat like the 30 year old, mature, talented batsman that he is. His bowling is a bonus. Jeewan Mendis is a batsman. He should remind himself to bat like one. 

"Why do we fall?"
"So that we can learn to pick ourselves up".

May it be in this tournament it self, or in the times that follow after the retirement of three of Sri Lanka's greatest cricketers of all time, it is high time that Sri Lanka learn to pick them selves up before it is too late.

Cheers,
Kumma



Friday, 30 January 2015

Mahela's Unlikely Partner

ICC Cricket World Cup, Australia & New Zealand, 2015

The 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup will be the last world cup for many of Sri Lanka's recent legends. With the obvious ones of Mahela Jayawardane, Kumar Sangakkara and TM Dilshan, once you start noticing the ages of the rest of the team, it is a quick realization that this would also be the last world cup for Rangana Herath, Lasith Malinga and Nuwan Kulasekara. But world cup or no world cup, we would still probably be fortunate to see all these players in the national jersey for a few more games after the conclusion of the world cup, Dilshan having already stated that he hopes to continue playing ODIs and T20s, and Sanga being pushed by Angelo Mathews to continue in Tests for another year, at least. Everyone, but Mahela Jayawardane. The last match Sri Lanka play at this world cup will be the last international game Sri Lankan fans will see their uni-browed, baby-faced, down to earth yet sometimes grumpy, immensely talented hero in National colours. When the last ball of the last game Sri Lanka play is bowled, the Mahela Jayawardane epic will most certainly end.

Mahela's career has been highlighted by many wonderful records. Highest individual test score for a Sri Lankan, partnering with his mate Sanga to bring up the world's highest partnership for any wicket in the same game, scoring more hundreds at a single venue than any other batsman, and even becoming the first Sri Lankan to score international centuries across all formats, his records are merely a highlight as to what this man has truly achieved as a Sri Lankan on the world stage. But his most interesting record, one he has lost in recent years, is something for statisticians to die for. From 1998 to 2011, Mahela scored 13 ODI hundreds, all of which resulted in victories for Sri Lanka. In the 90s when Sri Lanka's wins were determined by how many runs Sanath Jayasuriya scored, to the 2010s when the probability of a Sri Lankan win were dependent on how long Sangakkara would stay at the crease, Mahela's contribution to Sri Lankan wins during that middle period usually goes unnoticed. Specially, the ones in chases. In big chases. Chases that require more than a run a ball, with less than 5 wickets in hand. Mahela's been part of many such chases. But if I were to pick my top 3 of such chases, all three would have one common factor other than Mahela; His partner. 

Until the century he made at the 2011 World Cup Final,
Mahela had scored 13 ODI hundreds and all of them had resulted in wins for Sri Lanka.

In the late 90s and the early 2000s, when Sri Lanka were 5 down, and needed 6 an over to win the match, Mahela being there till the end was simply just not enough. Sri Lanka had a long tail. They didn't have the likes of an Angelo Mathews to come in and finish the innings with a sensible innings. Nor did they have the luxury of a big hitting Thisara Perera who could bring the required run rate down to 3.5 in a matter of 12 balls. But they did have one man. A slender, enthusiastic bloke from Galle, who took more pride in his fielding than his bowling or batting, who boasted of a record of being the only sub-continental spinner to take a 10 wicket haul in Australia, who hit bowlers out of the ground with sheer timing, and a variety of innovative stroke-play. bowled leg breaks that made Shane Warne proud, and took catches that defied gravity; Mahela's perennial partner in chases; Upul Chandana.

Maiyya and Upula's partnership goes back way before Sanga even made his debut as a Sri Lankan cricketer. It goes right back to Mahela's first ODI century, in a game made famous by Ross Emerson calling Murali for chucking, and Arjuna Ranatunga leading the team off the field in protest. Sri Lanka vs England at the Carlton United Series in 1999 at Adelaide was a game marred by controversy. On top of the no-balling and boycotting, Alec Stewart, Darren Gough and Roshan Mahanama got them selves in a verbal pickle during the chase as well, and it was only fitting that Murali had the last laugh by scoring the winning runs. But much before Murali took his revenge, the chase of 303 for Lanka's win was shaped through two magnificent one-day innings. At the time, just 21 years of age, young Mahela Jayawardane strolled out to the wicket at 8 for 2, in the 4th over. He watched Jayasuriya race to 50 in 30 balls before he too gave it away. Hashan and Arjuna provided him experienced company and playing an innings of class, with masterful stroke play and more importantly one of great character and the ability to absorb pressure, he brought up his first one day century before the two of them departed. They were followed by Chaminda Vaas to leave Sri Lanka at 235/6 in 42 overs. Mahela was in, but with 68 needed in 8 overs with only 4 wickets left, he simply had too much to do on his own. That was when Upul Chandana joined Mahela. With Mahela timing the ball crisply, Chandana taking charge to the English bowlers, they put on 34 in 22. Chandana gave the impetus the Sri Lankan inning had lacked since the departure of Jayasuriya.  Mahela was dismissed for 120, a first of many match winning hundreds, but Chandana continued to marmalize the English, taking Darren Gough to the stands with a massive six over midwicket. By the time Maiyya and Upula were done, Sri Lanka needed only 15 runs in 15 balls, having reduced the gap between run and balls left by about 20. At a time when 300 was deemed unchasable, Maiyya and Upula had helped Sri Lanka accomplish the impossible. Together they had committed day light robbery, and it was a first of many to come.

Upul Chandana is an unlikely big hitter. He is an unlikely match winner.
Most of all, he's the most unlikely player to have partnered up with Mahela,
in so many successful run chases.

5 years later, in Bridgetown, Barbados, Sri Lanka were chasing another 300+ target against the West Indies. Earlier Brian Lara had ripped the Sri Lankan bowling line up shreds by making a faster than run-a-ball hundred helping the West Indies to a total of 312, and at 192/4 in 35 overs, the Sri Lankan chase was all but over. Chandana having been sent in at number 5 as a pinch hitter, was joined by Mahela who came in at 6, needing 130 runs in 90 balls to win. Together they put on 101 in 13 overs, Chandana scoring a whirlwind 89 with 6 fours and 4 sixes. Mahela didn't score a single boundary, but made a vital 32, knocking the ball around, and giving Chandana the strike to carry out his onslaught, a knock that probably still is one of the best One Day innings by a pinch hitter, promoted up the order to run havoc, during a chase. Once again they had come together to pull off heist, and again they had done it away from home, taking it to those who had called Sri Lanka "home tigers" at the time. 5 years ago, Mahela had won the man of the match award for his 120 in the chase, this time, the award was Chandana's. But the two of them, and everyone else in the ground, and everyone who watched both games, knew that it was their coming together in both games, that turned the game in Sri Lanka's favor.

But their best partnership together didn't come in a massive chase. It came on a slow pitch in Dambulla, during the Indian Oil Cup triangular series in 2005 against India, chasing only 220. Sri Lanka were 95/6 when Chandana joined Mahela. This time, they didn't need to chase at over a run-a-ball. They didn't need to attack  They needed 125 runs in 25 overs with only 4 wickets in hand, and Maharoof and the two fast bowlers to follow. They needed to bat sensibly. On a windy night in Dambulla, under lights, lots of dew from the lake, in swinging conditions, and a wearing pitch, Mahela and Chandana, slowly pulled off a win right from the jaws of defeat. And what's more, this time they finished the game together. Mahela made a memorable 94* and Chandana; a mature 44*. They had come full circle. From Adelaide, to Bridgetown to Dambulla, together they had conquered and mastered all types of chases, In a time when Sri Lanka were done when Jayasuriya got out, Maiyya and Upula had taught the Sri Lankan public that it's not over till they had their say, and they had done it multiple times, to prove that it was no fluke. In the hearts of the passionate Sri Lankan cricket followers. they had become the ultimate partners in chases. While there is not argument that Sanga is the tonic to Maiyya's Gin, it needs to be remembered that Upula was the "chase" to Maiyya's Scotch. 

Sanga-Maiyya would be the partnership the whole world would remember.
But the Maiyya-Upula adventures hold some of the best ODI memories
for the Sri Lankan cricket fan.

16 years have gone by since the day they pulled off their first heist together, and it has been quite a while since the unlikely chronicles of Maiyya and Upula have joined Sri Lanka's cricketing folklore. 4 illustrious world cups later, Mahela has decided this would be his last. Chandana has called it a day for quite a while now, and he will join the likes of me and us fans in tuning in to watch Mahela make at least one more match winning hundred. To Chandana, his unlikely partner in chases, and to me, as Chandana and Mahela are my two favorite Sri Lankan cricketers of all time, it would be a gift from the gods above if Mahela could chase down a big score in Australia for one last time, 16 years later, in the very land he announced him self to the world.

Fingers crossed,
Kumma


Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Obligatory World Cup Rant

ICC Cricket World Cup, Australia & New Zealand, 2015

After a disappointing ODI series against New Zealand, Sri Lankan cricket fans have flocked in numbers to throw their opinions around social media as to why Sri Lanka are having such a bad run in New Zealand, when they were expected to be one of the top contenders for this world cup. Blaming selection mishaps, pointing fingers at under performing players and by glorifying those who were not selected, they have already come to a consensus that Sri Lanka are already out of the tournament, before it has even begun. 

One of the main talking points about the whole selection fiasco, is the leaving out of Upul Tharanga and Kusal Perera, and naming Dimuth Karunaratne, to which Sanath Jayasuriya has come out and admitted that he did actually make a blunder. Well of course, every time you drop and select players to the ODI team based on Test performances, it really needs to be considered a blunder. When Lahiru Thirimanne was Sri Lanka's man of the series at the Asia cup as an opener, he was dropped from the ODI side later on his Test form. Selecting Dimuth after his 150 at Christchurch was merely the opposite end of the stick of that same blunder. But, to be fair to Thirimanne, he has got his place back thanks to the continuous failure of both Kusal and Dimuth. And to be honest, Sri Lanka's opening problems end there, because Thirimanne is a much better batsman than Kusal, Tharanga and Dimuth, having the technique to survive the new ball, and also to accelerate when needed with the big shots. He's sort of a hybrid between all three prior names. The blunder was not to name him the opener in the first place. Dimuth's selection and Tharanga's omitting were just sub-blunders that followed.

Realistically speaking, Upul Tharanga being left out is not a blunder at all. If Sri Lanka dropped TM Dilshan, or Angelo Mathews, that would be a blunder, because these are players without who Sri Lanka would not win the world cup. Upul Tharanga maybe a vital cog in the machine, but he's not what Dwayne Bravo is to the West Indies. The opening slot has been filled perfectly by Thirimanne, and Upul Tharanga's argument ends there. He has no place in this team. With Dimuth as the reserve opener, as of now, he won't even make it as a reserve. 

With Thirimanne slotting in as the opener, all this rubbish about
Tharanga not being selected needs to end.

But Dimuth as a reserve doesn't make sense either, because Sri Lanka do not have a reserve middle order batsman for this world cup. With Jeewan Mendis's failures, this weakness has been thoroughly exposed. Sri Lanka should ideally have taken an extra middle order batsman, who bowls a bit, pretty much a like-for-like replacement for Mendis to the world cup. Some one in the mold of Ashan Priyanjan, or Kithruwan Vithanage. Even a Chamara Kapugedara would have sufficed. But the real option would have been to take the big hitting, dart throwing Angelo Perera, a Sri Lankan version of JP Duminy/Suresh Raina almost. Since he wasn't given enough opportunities before the world cup as Sri Lanka persisted with the can't bat-can't bowl-can't field-Seekkuge Prassanna, Angelo Perera's name would not even have appeared on the probable list. But from the recent try outs, at least Priyanjan should have made the cut.

It is what it is for now. The squad actually isn't half as bad. It's a lot stronger and more balanced than the one we had in 2011, where Thilan Samaraweera, Chamara Silva and Chamara Kapugedara were our middle order accumulators, and Dilshan and Mathews was the only batsman who could bowl, and Kula was the only bowler who could bat. This time, in Dilshan, Mahela and Sanga, Sri Lanka have a wealth of experience. In Mathews they have form and confidence. In Herath and Kulasekara, they have dependability. And in Chandimal, Thirimanne, Thisara, Jeewan, Prasad, Sachithra and Suranga, they have immense raw talent. And if they are lucky, they will also have Malinga, who is an army on his own. 13 out of the 15, have ODI high scores which are 40+. 10 out of the 15 have ODI best figures of more than 3 wickets. On paper, this is team can beat anyone.

Sri Lanka's most important matches of the group stage, contrary to popular belief, are not the ones against Australia, New Zealand and England. It is the three games they play against Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Scotland. Because those are the three games they need to win, to make it to the quarter finals. Any win against the top three teams, would only be a bonus, not to face South Africa at the quarter finals. The other 3 teams from group A may take any order, including even the West Indies, if they manage to bat 50 overs. And unlike any other world cup since 1999, this one doesn't have ONE clear front runner, and is an open tournament. Three teams; South Africa, Australia and New Zealand look to have greater odds, but the other teams are not far behind.

In truth, Sri Lanka, for the first time since 2003 are not one of the top 3 favorites. On recent form, their chances of making past the quarter finals are dim. But once Sri Lanka get the wins against the bottom 3 teams in their group, they are only 3 knock out games away from winning the trophy. They play their quarter final at the SCG due to higher ICC ranking than England, as the hosts play in MCG and at Eden Park. The wicket at the SCG turned heaps during the recent New Year's test. Who knows what might happen once we are in the knockout stages.

As a team, if they are to impress more than they did against New Zealand, Sri Lanka need to up their fielding. Chandimal needs to get his act together at number 5 or 6. Thisara and Jeewan need to contribute more consistently with the bat and ball, or one of them will have to make way for a specialist bowler, in which case Chandimal will have to be extra responsible as Sri Lanka will only be fielding 6 batsmen. The bowlers will need to find ways to curb the runs at the death, specially the likes of Kulasekara and Herath will have to step up to the plate, this probably being their last ODI world cup as well. And the big three along with Mathews will have to deliver big. 

In the 2011 Final, Thisara Perera's cameo announced him to the world.
This time around, more consistence will be expected from him

As Sri Lankan cricket fans, we tend to place our hopes in one of two extremes. Either we will beat everyone to the ground and win the cup, or we will lose to even Afghanistan and get knocked out. We are so passionate that we either need to be all hopeful and positive, or completely disappointed and hopeless. The middle ground is to be realistic of what this squad can achieve, and try not to be too hopeful neither too pessimistic.

Reality is that odds do not favor Sri Lanka to win the world cup this time around, but what Sri Lankans need to realize is that you don't need to be favorites to win a World Cup. The world cup has been won by underdogs too. That is the only way we've won this cup previously anyway. Because odds don't determine wins. Players do.

Adios,
Kumma

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Cometh the hour; Cometh the man

Sri Lanka vs New Zealand, 1st Test, Day 3, Christchurch

Dimuth Karunaratne averages 30 in Test cricket. It is not an average between a bunch of centuries and half centuries and a series of single digit scores. It is an average of a numerous 30s, a seldom half century and a few low scores. An average doesn't necessarily give an idea how many runs a batsman will score in a particular innings, but for Dimuth it does. He almost always get a start, gets to 30. He bats like he's in the form of his life, middling it off the pads and off the hips, cutting and square driving like a hundred is only a few deliveries away. And just when you feel like no one's going to stop him, he gets out. But when ever he does, he gives you the feeling that one of these days, he's going to dig in, hold his composure and go on to make a big hundred. Today was that day.

At the start of the 3rd day in Christchurch, Sri Lanka were 84 for no loss, following on, and still trailing New Zealand's first innings score by 219 runs. The ball was 35 overs old, the atmosphere was cloudy and overcast, and Trent Boult and Tim Southee were running in from either end fully charged. Kaushal Silva got a brute that nipped away from him at chest height, to which he got a feather of an edge. The world's #1 Test batsman at the moment could only manage one run, before he too nicked one behind to the keeper. In a matter of minutes after the start, Sri Lanka were 2 down for 94. An innings defeat loomed in the distance, with 3 days of cricket still left to play. That's when Dimuth Karunaratne decided to play the innings of his life, yet.

He left the ball on line. Anything along the fourth stump line was left for the keeper to collect. Anything on the pads, were whipped through midwicket for runs. When teased with width outside off, on a length and on the full, he calmly refused. Anything short and wide, he latched on for boundaries. The balls that attacked the stumps, he defended back to the bowler. He played as good as any Lara or Tendulkar could have played on a seaming pitch. He stonewalled like any Dravid or Du Plessis ever did. In a time when Sri Lanka have struggled to find openers who could play long innings, when they have run out of options for batsmen who have the temperament to bat for long periods under pressure, when batsman who can dig deep and bat out draws are only seen on television, when the Marvan Atapattus, the Asanka Gurusinghes and the Thilan Samaraweeras seemed to have been a thing of the past, Dimuth Karunaratne stepped up to the plate and delivered a knock that resurrected the old gritty Sri Lankan Test batsman. A knock that the team was crying out for, given the situation. By the time he was cleaned up by a peach of a delivery by Boult, he had spent over 8 hours at the crease, faced 363 balls, batted across four sessions and amassed 152 runs that ensured Sri Lanka wouldn't lose by an innings in the space of 3 days. Dimuth Karunaratne had arrived.

Dimuth Karunaratne's maiden Test hundred could not have come at a better time,
in terms of the context of the game, and the need of another solid opening batsman for Sri Lanka.

He was aptly supported first by Thirimanne, who batted with the sort of calmness and serenity associated with Sangakkara. Although he seems to have a problem getting past the 20s, his knock today was far more important than the runs. He too blocked away over a 100 deliveries, before he again fished at one he should have left alone, for the second time in the game. Angelo Mathews came in and batted like he can only be dismissed by suicide, like in the first innings. Mathews isn't the most skillful batsman in the Sri Lankan team. He's not even in the top 3 in that list. But he compensates for his limited skill with an extremely good temperament, the sort of mental toughness that made players like Steve Waugh and Graeme Smith in to world class cricketers even with limited technical ability. He continues to bat on, as Sri Lanka sit unstably on 295/5, still trailing by 10 runs, with only PJ to come in next from the batsmen.

Sri Lanka should have gone to stumps only 4 down though, all four of which were earned by the New Zealand bowlers. Kaushal and Sanga got two gems early on in the day, and Dimuth probably got the ball of the match. Thirimanne did get out chasing a wild one, but it was a crafty bowling change by McCullum to bring on Neesham at that stage that brought the wicket. The only wicket that was gifted was the one of Dickwella. Dickwella undoubtedly is one of the most talented and flamboyant young batsmen in the Sri Lankan circuit at the moment, but the reasons to play him as a specialist Test batsmen is a baffling one, specially when Dinesh Chandimal is warming the bench. A Test number 6 needs to be a batsman prepared to bat for long durations, in energy sapping conditions, partly supporting a senior top order batsman, or farming the strike with the tail. Dickwella is neither. If Sri Lanka are to seriously challenge foreign bowling line ups, they should be looking for a batsman in the mold of Mike Hussey, Paul Collingwood or  Faf Du Plessis, who have both the skill and the mental capacity to bat under pressure. For such a criteria, picking between Dickwella and Chandimal should be a no-brainer.

Although most would have expected Sri Lanka to fold and lose by an innings, and although one good spell from either end is all it takes for this game to be wrapped up during the first hour tomorrow, Sri Lanka have already done them selves proud by taking the game in to the 4th day. If Mathews can replicate what he did in Headingley earlier this year, and the likes of Kaushal, PJ, Dhammika and Eranga can bat around him, by taking session by session, Sri Lanka can still set up a significant 4th innings chase. If the three overs he faced were any indication of his technique, Tharindu Kaushal should be an able partner to Mathews for a few useful runs tomorrow. PJ is experienced and tough, and he will put up a fight before he goes down. Dhammika Prasad used to be his school's opening batsman and Shaminda Eranga has a first class hundred to his name. Sri Lanka have fought well for 4 sessions so far, and a couple more from here and they will feel they can take enough momentum from this game in to Wellington to force a win there. Sri Lanka do not have to win this game to come out of it proud, they do not even have to draw. They have already shown their fighting spirit that they continued to show through out the year, and what ever they do from here will only enhance it. But either of the former results, would be far more pleasing. 

Regardless of that result, the confidence gained by a hundred that might spark a long illustrious career for one Dimuth Karunaratne is priceless for the future of Sri Lanka cricket. In their hour of need, he was hero that Sri Lanka deserved.

Another long, hard grind awaits,
Until then,
Adios,
Kumma