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,

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Moving on the Fast Lane

Sri Lanka vs New Zealand, 1st Test, Day 2, Christchurch

Sri Lankan private buses are known for causing road rage in the busy streets of Colombo, usually moving at around 15-20kmph over the speed limit, overtaking on the wrong side, and shoving passengers in with Sardine-can-like precision. None more so than the 138. Any Sri Lankan who's lived in Colombo even for a brief period knows the shenanigans of the 138 drivers. You may own a Ferrari or an Aston Martin, but you will never travel the Colombo streets on a busy day as fast as a Leyland 138 bus would. It is a ride on the fast lane with movement and pace almost identical to that what Boult and Southee produced at Christchurch today. It is only fitting that Sri Lanka were bowled out for that very magic number. That is exactly what they must have felt like; vomitish, dizzy passengers on a fast, unstoppable, rowdy 138 during the peak hours of a busy Colombo day.

Day two at the Hagley Oval was a lot less sunnier than the first, giving ample moisture to the pitch, making it more conducive to fast, swing bowling. It also didn't help that Trent Boult and Tim Southee were much more disciplined with their lines and lengths, forcing the batsman to keep trying to poke at the ball. Five batsmen were snared by the outswing, four of them in the slips, and one leading edge to cover. Two fell to the one coming in, LBW. The other three went down slogging. Sri Lanka looked out of place. Out of character. And out of options. Although Mathews and Thirimanne briefly looked like they would steer Sri Lanka past the follow on mark, once the New Zealand bowlers started hitting the right lengths again, it was only a matter of time until they found the edge. Sri Lanka were humiliated. They might have felt in hindsight that they should have let New Zealand tail bat for the first hour of the day before they wrapped up the innings. Such desperate tactics are never too far away when you are being mauled over. We've all thought how we should have waited for the CTB, while being thrown around sweaty bodies in a 138.

Sri Lanka folded. In just 42 overs, they let go of the reputation they had earned over a period of 12 months as fighters down the drain. Angelo Mathews held on to one end, as he has done so many times this year, but it just wasn't enough. He's usually partnered by either Sanga or Mahela, and sometimes even both for some vital runs in the middle order which would have probably put Sri Lanka past the follow on mark, but Mahela is no more, and Sanga had a rare off day. Dimuth and Kaushal got the worst end of the stick, but they could have done at least a bit better at judging what to leave. The Thirimanne of old wouldn't have lasted six balls in such conditions, given his horrid show in England, but he seems to save sorted his issues with the moving ball, and looked comfortable for a while before he too poked at one he shouldn't have. But then again, haven't we all. PJ put up a fight, as he usually does, but at 60/5 it was too much to ask from him to salvage anything other than just double figures. Dickwella probably played his last game of the series, unless he comes up with something magical in the 2nd innings.

Dimuth Karunaratne with the amount of ability he possesses is destined for greatness.
But so were Vinod Kambli, Mark Ramprakash and Ramnaresh Sarwan.
Will this be his big break?

And then they were asked to follow on. Dimuth played magnificently off his pads and off the hips, cut anything too wide, and left anything along the corridor, and ran well between wickets. Kaushal, as per usual, left the ball on length and pounced on anything that was too full. Gaps started to show, and the runs started to flow. Sri Lanka were 84/0 after batting out 35 overs, only 7 short of what took them to be bowled out on the first innings. The track looked placid and the New Zealand bowlers looked dull. Sri Lanka were putting up a fight and everything was right with the world again.

Although Kaushal is by far the superior of the two in terms of temperament, Dimuth holds the edge when it comes to stroke play. He is in the mold of the Mahelas and the Marvans; not the most consistent, yet pleasing on the eyes. As he has done so throughout his career, he has earned him self a start and looks good for a big one, which although he always throws away. A big hundred away from Sri Lanka, in seaming conditions might just what he needs to kick start his career, just as Marvan did in Mohali 1997, and Mahela in a rank turner at Galle in 1998, both being the knocks that defined their respective careers and had never looked back since then. Kaushal is more of a Sanga. Patient and technical. Dependable and consistent. If they can hold off the pace barrage for the morning hour of tomorrow's play, Sri Lanka just might leave Christchurch with a loss, but a little bit of pride. A loss here would indeed spoil a splendid year for them, but posting a fighting 3rd innings score after being forced to follow on, specially if they could make New Zealand bat again for a significant amount of runs and make them earn their win, might not be too bad of a final entry for an year of wonder. Just as the 138 eases down and becomes a very relaxed ride to Maharagama after the hours of 6pm, Sri Lanka have settled in to a groove, and need to keep being patient. The ride gets uncomfortable every now and then, but if they are willing to hold on tight, it will ultimately get them to their destination unharmed.

Sri Lanka may not get out of this alive. But they should die a proud, fighting death; a Shakespearean ending to what was an amazing year of cricket for them. 

All to play for tomorrow then,

Friday, 26 December 2014

One Man Army; the unaccountable variable

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

In the 1985 remake of the famous American patriotic action movie "Invasion USA", a carefully planned invasion of the south eastern coast of USA is carried out by a bunch of organized Cuban communist guerrillas. They hoodwink the US Coast Guard, the police and even the FBI to arrive in Miami and take over the area in a matter of hours. The United States is forced to hand over the case to the CIA and bring in the national guard to Miami to control the situation. All is going well for the guerrillas. But even with all their planning, and careful calculations, they had not accounted for one single human being and the impact he would have on the whole invasion; Chuck Norris. Chuck Norris single-handedly finds the root of the operation and eliminates it and decimates most of the invading forces, and manages to stop the invasion. The guerrillas don't do to much wrong. Their plans are effective and efficient. If not for the one man army of Chuck Norris, their invasion would have been quite a successful one. But one man can make so much difference. 

On a sunny beautiful morning in Christchurch, where test cricket had returned after a lapse of 8 years, Sri Lanka learnt this lesson the hard way. They had carefully planned not to give width outside off to the openers Latham and Rutherford, and had them weeded out before lunch. They pressured Ross Taylor in to quick singles and had him run out. They dried the in form Kane Williamson of the strike and got him bowled through the gate. They bowled in good areas more often than not. They carried out their plans. But they had failed to account for one man; Brendon McCullum. McCullum, as if he was possessed by the ghost of Chuck Norris (and yes, Chuck Norris has a ghost even though he is not dead), hammered the Sri Lankan bowlers to all parts of the ground. Good length balls, short of the length balls with awkward bounce, balls that spun away from him and in to him, sometimes with the turn sometimes against, he attacked every good ball and every bad ball and completely single handedly annihilated any plans of a Sri Lankan invasion on the shores of Christchurch. 

By the time he was done, McCullum had made 195 runs off 134 deliveries. At one stage, just across the trans-Tasman, Australia had faced 60 overs for 175 runs. At the same time, in the same amount of overs, New Zealand were on 375. McCullum had wiped the floor with the Sri Lankan bowlers, and then had creamed them, marmalized them, and took them to the cleaners to have them washed up to be served again after tea. Angelo Mathews had to resort to Lahiru Thirimanne to stem the flow of runs. Thirimanne doesn't even bowl to his brother in his back yard, let alone for his national test team. Brendon McCullum did a Chuck Norris, and when someone does a Chuck Norris, there's nothing much you can do to stop them.

Oh the countless puns of Sri Lankan fast bowlers slipping up in New Zealand
But if you exclude that innings from the team total, imagine it never happened, as Tharindu Kaushal will be telling him self in his hotel room at this very moment, New Zealand's scorecard would read 234/7, and you could say that Sri Lanka have done fairly well for a first day of a tour. Even if McCullum had whisked 60 runs for himself, the score still would have stood at 294/7, which is still impressive for a bowling attack that isn't too intimidating. Apart from McCullum, Sri Lanka have bowled out the other 7 batsman for 234 runs at 32 runs per wicket, which is far from disastrous. McCullum just happened. Just like Gayle's haywire 333 at Galle, or Sehwag's 201 at the same venue, it just happened. No Murali or Warne or Donald or Akram would have been able to stop what happened today from happening. All you can do is to peg away at the batsman at the other end, and Sri Lanka have done just that. The last thing you need after a marathon innings like that is for the guy at the other end to score a 100 from 200 balls, and bat with the tail and take the total past 600. In that sense, Sri Lanka have still not let the game slip through their fingers, although Kumar Sangakkara tried extremely hard to make it that way. He was probably just missing Mahela. 

In the midst of the carnage, Sri Lanka also sneaked in two surprise selections. The less obvious one was Tharindu Kaushal, as Dilruwan Perera is still learning how to turn a door knob, and soon will be able to start to learn how to turn a red cricket ball. Kaushal was rather impressive and bowled a lot better than 159/1 suggests. Relaxed run up, good wristy, not-so-dodgy action, great loop through the air and dip, he seemed fit for the international stage. If he could work on his Dilhara Fernando syndrome and also try not to give the ball too much air so much so that it doesn't even land before it reaches the batsmen, he might just be an able partner to Herath, specially for home tests. The pace trio of Lakmal, Eranga and Dhammika bowled well too, Lakmal being the pick of the bowlers although he was taken apart for 26 runs in one over by McCullum. Dhammika bowled a few peaches while Eranga stuck to good lines and lengths, again with spoilt figures thanks to Mr.BigMac. The second surprise selection was Dickwella, ahead of Chandimal. But to be fair, Dickwella had done enough in the opportunity he was given against South Africa to retain his place. How he goes about handling Boult and Southee tomorrow or when ever he bats, will be the real test of his character.

At the end of day's play Sri Lanka have knocked over all the specialized batsmen in the New Zealand team, and after winning the toss and putting New Zealand in, that should be pretty pleasing. They will have to come back tomorrow morning and gun down the hard hitting tail of Southee, Boult and Craig and bat out the next 4 or possibly 5 sessions. Sri Lanka should not just bat for runs, they should also bat for time. They cannot leave New Zealand too much time to set them a tough 4th innings target with enough overs to bowl them out. The wicket looks extremely good for batting, as it turns out the pitch was only as green as a member of the UNP just before crossing over to the government, and therefore Sri Lanka should still feel that all is not lost, for there are days like this when one single human being can ruin and destroy well organized operations and completely dispose of careful plans and precise calculations. Today was McCullum's day. 

Until tomorrow,

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Year of the Carnivore

Sri Lanka vs New Zealand, 1st Test, Christchurch 

Prior to 2014, Sri Lanka had only won two Test series away from the sub-continent; New Zealand in 1995 and England (One-off Series) in 1998. They had only won ONE world cup, the famous win in 1996. Apart from a few Tests here and there, drawing series in West Indies, Pakistan, and England, a sole test win in South Africa, and a gazillion world cup finals, Sri Lanka had not impressed the international cricketing arena to the extent they could have since the turn of the century. They had missed the ruthlessness to finish off sides, or tournaments; for that matter, and had been labelled the perennial Bridesmaids of cricket. They were omnivores; hunting, but more often than not, being hunted.

That was until in 2014, which started with Angelo Mathews re-surging the Test team to rally around him to carry them to a win on the 4th of January in the UAE. But in typical Sri Lankan style, he gave away the advantage gained by the 1-0 lead by losing the next test with shamefully negative cricket. Going from 1-0, to 1-1 was something Sri Lankan fans were more than uses to, therefore it hadn't rung any alarms at that point. Soon, all that was about to change.

In a tournament where Sri Lanka had been in every final apart from the 2012 edition, Sri Lanka defeated Pakistan in the final to win their first Asia Cup since 2008. Then in even more dramatic and emotional fashion, they bid farewell to their greatest cricketing duo of all time; Sanga and Mahela in the T20 format, by winning the 2014 World T20. A world title had eluded them for a period of 7 years between 2007 and 2014, where they had taken part in 4 world cup Finals. Then they traveled to England, where they huffed and puffed with the bat and ball and sometimes even with the DRS to crawl to a draw at Lord's, and then came back with the flashing blade of Angelo Mathews and the screaming, bulging eyes of Dhammika Prasad, and one final, carefully placed short square leg and a perfectly directed bouncer from Shaminda Eranga to conjure up a win at Headingley.

Sri Lanka had transformed, from being the hard working mediocre team that can surprise you every now and then, to the ruthless, efficient unit that can win tournaments consistently. They had gone from triers, to achievers. From the hunted, to the hunter. When ever they were ruthless, they had won. When they had dominated, they had not let the advantage slip. May it be Thirimanne's twin centuries at the Asia Cup, or Herath bowling out New Zealand with almost wizardly craftsmanship at the WorldT20, or Angelo Mathews hitting back to back centuries in England, the one in Headingley perhaps the most influential and career defining century by a Sri Lankan in a Test, or even Dinesh Chandimal and Suranga Lakmal coming back in to the side and helping to topple England at home, the Sri Lanka of 2014 had transformed itself into a team that churns out wins, not just "competitive performances". 

After the Asia Cup, World T20, and then Headingley,
Sri Lanka Cricket has turned around from being the team that"Should have won"
to "The winning team"!
They did have their fair share of losses. Sri Lanka's 2014 was not a complete world domination. Not even close. When ever they had not taken their best team on a tour, or had played under-par cricket, they were revised of the lesson they had learnt so well; Hunt, or be hunted. AB De Villiers, Dale Steyn and South Africa along with Rohit-264-Sharma and India had shown them that the team that is willing to be ruthless will be the team that is more likely to win. From a Sri Lankan perspective, 2014 was the year they had metamorphed into a world beating unit. A ruthless team, which will beat you down given the slightest opening. It was the year they went from being the hunted, to the hunter. It was their Year of the Carnivore.

Come 26th of December, Sri Lanka will write their final journal entry for 2014, and they would like that entry to be a reflection of what they have achieved in the past 12 months. New Zealand probably are the toughest opponents they face this year, in the toughest conditions. The pitch at the new Christchurch ground looks greener than the vegetable station at a Green Earth organic product store. New Zealand's last visitors, India and West Indies, were both beaten comprehensively, with the aid of such wickets and bowlers like Southee, Boult, and Wagner who know how to exploit those wickets to extract victories from them. Sri Lanka know all too well about what Southee and Boult can do. With some coaching tips from Chaminda Vaas, the then rookie duo of Boult and Southee bowled New Zealand to a famous test victory in Sri Lanka only last year.

But a lot has happened since then. Lead by Angelo Mathews, Sri Lanka has become a tougher, stronger travelling team, with more venom in their pace attack than ever before. They have the world's best test batsman and the best test all-rounder, and the highest test wicket taker of the year. Above all, they have gained the confidence and the attitude needed to be a dominating side in 5 day cricket, and Christchurch provides the perfect audience for them to prove to the world that England-2014, Asia Cup-2014 and the WorldT20-2014 were not flukes, that 2014 all together was not a series of co-incidences. For it is their Year of the Carnivore, and this is the time to be ruthless and merciless.

On a different non-cricketing note, the Year of the Carnivore was a budget sex-comedy that introduced the mother from "How I met your Mother", Cristin Milioti to the silver screen in 2009. Her acting career had never been the same since then. And five years later, Sri Lanka's 2014 could well have been defined as a budget-sex-comedy that introduced Angelo Mathews to the Test Cricketing World, and changed the course of Sri Lanka's cricket in a significantly positive direction. The credits have started to roll on 2014 and there's one last post-credits scene to be watched.

Until the post-credit scene begins tomorrow,

Thursday, 12 June 2014

All hype, no show?

England v Sri Lanka, Day One 1st Test, Lords' 2014

Sri Lanka's Test series with England was hyped up during the past two weeks for all the wrong reasons. But it was hyped up all the same, much neededly too, for during a summer where England plays five tests with India, it should be appreciated that the Sri Lankan team is at least being noticed for being there as well.

Biggest of such controversies leading up to the series was Sachithra Senanayake being reported for a suspect action leading to Mathews whinging about touring "certain parts of the world", a special team meeting to console baby Sachi with a dinner to follow to boost his confidence, leading to the infamous "Mankading". Firstly, Sachithra does have a dodgy action. He doesn't do himself any good by wearing long sleeves either. Worst of all, he takes wickets. And nothing grinds a Pom's gears than a bowler with a dodgy action running through their batting line up. Ask Saeed Ajmal, or Johan Botha. Or just google "Muttiah Muralitharan". But Sachithra's dodgy action was reported once, when he was on tour in Australia with the Sri Lanka A team, and he was cleared. But the Poms always think they know better than the Aussies. Always. Secondly, the Mankading is legal. If it is legal and still against the "Spirit of cricket", the blame should go to the old men in maroon and gold coats at the MCC who wrote them in the first place. But ironically, just like Sachithra's action, its a dodgy way to get someone out. Dodgy, yet cleared by the law.

The other big controversy was England nicking Sri Lanka's World Cup winning coach, Paul "Graham-Ford-did-all-the-hardwork" Farbrace. Farbrace is well within his rights to leave the job, as any employee who hasn't signed a waver to stay for a particular period of time has a right to leave his job to get a better one. BUT, the bad part isn't him leaving, it's him leaving to ENGLAND, Sri Lanka's opponents in the summer. That's almost as cheap as Dayasiri Jayasekara joining the SLFP, two days before the nominations deadline. That argument about England questioning Sri Lanka's "Spirit of the game" should end here. Nevertheless, such controversies led to this series, which is actually just prelude to the real, proper English summer, getting some attention from the public, making it more significant than just another series for a Sri Lankan team with a mediocre bowling line up, trying to prove to the world that they can draw test matches outside the subcontinent with their batting.

With all the hype behind him, and as always with the burden on not knowing whether Sri Lanka's bowling attack could take 20 wickets on a pitch that doesn't turn square, Angelo Mathews won the toss and decided to bowl first. It wasn't a wise decision, but it was a smart one.  At Lords' they say you win the toss, bat first and book-in for bed and breakfast, so as to say you would bat overnight till tea on the 2nd day and therefore the wiser decision would have been to bat first. But there was enough grass on the pitch for Sri Lanka to make a mockery of themselves if they opted to bat, and since it is less embarrassing to be bowled out for 180 on the 3rd morning, conceding a first innings lead of 320, rather then being shot out for 65 all out before lunch, the smarter decision was to bowl first.

Mathews' decision seemed to have paid off by lunch when England were 98/3 and when Eranga weeded out Ian Bell to make it 120/4, Sri Lanka were on course for making Angelo Mathews look like the smartest brown man to ever land on English soil after Mahatma Gandhi was there in 1888. But once the pitch started baking under the sunlight, and the bowl started getting older, Welegedara not playing to offer any reverse swing, and Herath unable to generate any turn, England in the form of Joe Root, Moeen Ali and Matt Prior piled on the runs, finishing the day at 344/5.

Nuwan Pradeep is famous for two things;
for being selected to the national side through a talent search program
and for having a bowling average higher than Bradman's batting average.
But Chaminda Vaas only has 3 wickets in two tests at Lords', and Pradeep already has 2.
Your argument is invalid.
Sri Lankan bowler didn't do too much wrong either. They just didn't do much at all, after Bell's wicket. Briefly Rangana Herath looked like he would run through England's lower middle order when he had Moeen Ali poking outside off and nicking off to Mahela at first slip, and then trapping Matt Prior second ball only to be turned down by DRS' umpire's call. But that was it. The pitch was too good to bat on, and Prior and Root weren't going to miss out on the deal. Once the second new ball was taken, they peppered a tired three-prong-blunt seam attack around the park, which demoralized the Sri Lankans before they headed out to the dressing rooms to watch Brazil play Croatia.

Sri Lanka will walk out on the second morning looking to break this partnership, but even if they do if they don't take wickets at regular intervals, they could be looking at a total of somewhere around 500, as Jordan, Broad and Plunkett are all batsmen who will score quick runs if they stay in. Sri Lanka's chances seem rather dim after everyone realized how good the pitch was for batting, and the only thing they could hope for is to emulate England's batting performance and try to force a miracle in the 3rd innings of the game.

Test cricket is a long patient game, where miracle happen more often than not and anything is possible until Sri Lanka are forced to follow on. If the test does end that way, all the hype that was created before the series would have been for nothing, but we'll have to wait for five days to find that out. So although cricket actually is a long and patient game, it also is a dodgy one; that makes you sit in front of a screen for six hours a day for five days and still end up with no result more than half the time.

Catch you tomorrow,

Friday, 18 April 2014

Fourteen Days Later

Sri Lanka v India, Final, World T20 2014

Fourteen days after Sri Lanka were crowned world T20 champions; only their second world title in cricketing history, I find my self staring at my laptop screen, finally having wrapped my head around the fact that we are indeed world champions. Like many Sri Lankans, I have now watched the highlights over and over again to the point where my chrome homepage has a link to the highlights video on "" listed as "Most Visited". I have listened to countless press conferences and watched all the television and radio interviews from all the players. I've surfed through the web for various celebration videos from all around Sri Lanka and all around the world. This cycle has continued for two weeks, and still the mind, body or soul hasn't seemed to have enough of it.

But if you really think about it, Sri Lanka haven't really won a "World Cup" in terms or technicalities. The ICC prefers to call the tournament "The World T20". The trophy it self isn't termed "The T20 World Cup Trophy", instead it is called the "World T20 Trophy". As much as Sri Lanka are world champions in the T20 format after winning the tournament, it may only be a mere justification of their position as the #1 T20 side in the world via the ICC world rankings, something Sri Lankans knew and were proud of even before the tournament had begun. Then what is to be made of these wild celebrations? Of the tears that were shed of joy? Of the electric hair raising feeling you get when you watch that winning moment over and over again. As contrary to the whole point about the world T20 not being a real world cup, the emotion in winning it could yet be justified. A classic example would be the photograph of Misbah Ul Haq kneeling with his head on his bat, while the Indians celebrated his dismissal in the final ball of the final over, in the world T20 finale in 2007.

But that is not the epitome of it. The emotions us Sri Lankans felt when we won that world cup are far greatly justifiable if you put the following in to perspective. Consider the scenario if Sri Lanka had lost the final. Sri Lanka would have fluffed the so called "boon" that was handed to them by god, to bid farewell to their two favourite sons since the mid 2000s. On top of it, it would have been the fifth final in the space of 7 years that they had lost. They would have stamped the name "chokers" on their foreheads the same way the swastika was carved on Col. Hans Landa by Lieutenant Aldo Raine; in more ways than one making it the "greatest masterpiece yet". They would have lost to their nemesis; India, who have tormented them across formats and finals all over the world. And fed by all these memories and contemplating a thousand disastrous permutations about its out come, in the hearts of every Sri Lankan there was fear, going in to the final. There was fear that Mahela and Sanga would have to retire, with careers of glorious numbers and unmatchable statistics, without ever being crowned world champions. Further, there was fear that if these two cannot win one, then who will? Will Sri Lanka ever win a world cup again? There was fear of heartache of this horrid nightmare coming true. Again. All over again. And it was this fear of disappointment that all Sri Lankans was liberated of, when Thisara Perera swiped that length ball over Ashwin's head. Any good team with a bit of luck can win a final. A consistent team under stable leadership can win world cups. But it is not everyday a sports team can liberate a whole nation of a fear of drowning in sorrows and heartache of losing what is Sri Lanka's only shot at being something in this world, of being champions.

Any team that wins a world cup will be called world champions,
but the beauty is in making people truly believe that they are indeed fans of the best team in the world.

When Sri Lanka lost the final in 2007, they lost to the best team of the tournament. They lost to a team that seemed unbeatable. They lost to an innings that would not be replicated in a world cup final for a long time to come. Amidst claims of Adam Gilchrist being a cheat for using a squash ball; which in my opinion was as fair as wicketkeepers using inner gloves, and Colombo's power being shut down due to an air-raid by the LTTE, Sri Lankan let the world cup loss pass. It wasn't something they thought they would win in the first place. In 2009, Sri Lanka ascended to their position of the most consistent T20 side in the world, with the aid of Lasith Malinga's yorkers, Dilshan's dilscoops, Mathews' all round heroics and Mendis' magic box. In a final where they should have won, against a team they had already beaten in the group stages, Sri Lanka faltered. They choked. Signs of heartache had begun and wounds that would not heal had been made. In 2011, Sri Lanka dusted off the early loss to Pakistan and steam rolled their way in to the final, yet as underdogs to the final hosts India, then with the grit of Mahela and Thisara's bats and Malinga's ball, Sri Lanka held their sword against India's throat. But before the throat could be slit, the back to the wall India handed Sri Lanka a knock out blow. Sri Lanka choked once again. This time the heartache did not spare the tears. Sri Lanka cried. But it wasn't until 2012 that Sri Lanka wept. Sri Lanka were favourites to win in 2012. It was their reward for enduring three straight final losses; a world cup win at home, in front of the home crowd, with their ever loving leaders Mahela as captain, and Sanga as deputy. But from the jaws of defeat, Marlon Samuels snatched victory for the West Indies. Sri Lanka was left speechless. That was it. That was the final nail in the coffin. Sri Lanka, along with Mahela and Sanga, their pillars of success in recent years, Malinga and Dilshan, their pioneers of T20 dominance, Herath and Kule, their most hard working and humble workhorses, would one day have to bow down without ever tasting the a world championship. Sri Lanka bled and Sri Lanka wept. Such wounds took time to heal, and left scars that only a world cup win could slightly help cover. But one thing was for sure; Sri Lanka could not afford to lose another final. They had endured hell. Not this time. Not again. And they didn't. They won. And this feeling right there, of self realization that no matter how many bad memories were made, and no matter how many tears were shed since 2007, Sri Lanka had finally managed to WIN one, was what really and genuinely justified the emotions that were sparked.

Sri Lankans famously dub themselves as a nation that only remembers anything for a space of seven days. But with the emotional trauma that they suffered since 2007, for seven years of being bride's maids to everyone else's weddings, of an 18 year old trophy drought, the despair of being called chokers and the lack of hope for dreaming to be world champions, this win in 2014 will not be forgotten for a long long time. It may have sparked united celebrations across all races, ethnicities, religions cast and creed in Sri Lanka, but it may never be the final step towards attaining true equity and peace in the island. It may have put them on the map once again after 1996 for being world champions, but it may not make them a significant figure in the world as much as we would like to think it would. In truth, Sri Lanka's win, and being crowned "World Champions" may not be much of a deal at all to anyone else in this world but to Sri Lankans, but in a sense that with this win Sri Lanka may not have won the world at all, and yet has won the world of every Sri Lankan, makes this win a far greater gift than any win a sports team could win for their country.

Which is why these words from Harsha Bhogle, "Now, has he got it? Yes he has! Sri Lanka are the new champions of the ICC World T20! Well played! They've tried so hard so many times in the final. This is their day." will ring in the ears of Sri Lankan fans for years and years to come, let alone just for two weeks.


Tuesday, 8 April 2014

TL;DR "We Freaking Won the World Cup!"

Sri Lanka v India, World T20 2014

When Sri Lanka started their world cup campaign, to me it was all about bidding farewell to Mahela and Sanga in the T20 format. Having a minimum of four games to play in the space of ten days, a semi final and a final would only be a bonus for me to see the two greats bat together in the format that they stand as evidence for purists who can play the game that is desired by the team. It was also possibly the last World T20 for Sri Lanka's T20 fortune maker; TM Dilshan, and their spin wizard since Murali; Rangana Herath. But a farewell did not seem to be on the cards for any of these Sri Lankan legends. TM Dilshan looked like an old worn out deer in head lights, with not enough reflexes to see the vehicle coming. Herath didn't even get a game. And when Sanga couldn't get the ball of the square for the first four games he batted, scoring a telephone number for runs; 14,0,4,1, and when Mahela had to be dropped by the English over and over again for him to score which was perhaps the ugliest half century of his career, for me the swan song had started to end with an off key.

Then Sri Lanka lost to England. Chandimal was banned for a game for low over-rates. Thirimanne came in as replacement. Mendis got dropped for Herath. With Malinga being appointed as captain, his baby sitting duties were set on Mahela's, Sanga's and Dilshan's hands. The swan song had begun, and the whole country were singing in chorus, with their hearts on their sleeve, and tears in their eyes. In a heart-stopping game, Sri Lanka came back after a dismal batting collapse against New Zealand to bowl them out for 60 runs and make it to the Semi Finals. Rangana Herath heralded the charge, with Murali-esque figures of 5 for 3. Has there ever been a better left-arm spinner from the sub-continent, or even in the world, one would wonder. Dilshan was ferociously vocal and ever passionate in the field; he had found his aggression that Sri Lanka much depend on for crucial games. Dilshan's passion and aggression is the tonic to Mahela's emotion and Sanga's calm. And with the three combined, they provided the perfect advisory board for Captain Malinga to lead the troops to one last Semi Final for the three greats.

Transition of the captaincy from Chandi to Malinga;
a sub-plot that would be spoken about for decades.
Against West Indies, Chandimal was back to selection availability. In a gesture that perhaps won Sri Lanka the world cup, consciously or not, he made him self unavailable for selection, opting to leave the working machine as it is; letting Thiri play and letting Malinga captain his first World Cup Semi Final. Seekkuge Prasanna came in for Thisara to add the extra spin option against the big hitting Windies who like a bit of pace on the ball. Kusal and Dilshan put away Samuel Badree and Krishmar Santokie on to the ropes from the start and Sri Lanka raced to 41/0 in 4 overs, and completely upset the West Indian plans of getting early Badree wickets, and pushing cheap Santokie overs before Narine came and capitulated the opposition. In continuation of Sanga's failures with the bat, and Mahela's unneeded run out without facing a ball, the two Sri Lankan legends departed with a total of 1 run between them. But unlike the old Sri Lanka, who crumble when the stalwarts fail, Thirimanne and Mathews stepped up. With an unusually calm innings from Dilshan, a calculated charge from Thiri and a massacre in the last two overs by Mathews, Sri Lanka posted a commanding 160 runs. Mahela conducted the orchestra, with Sanga by his side, and with ever reliable spells from Sachithra, Kule and Hera, a surprise Afridi spell from Prasanna and a Gayle stopping, Smith crumbling two overs from Malinga, Sri Lanka cruised to one final "Final" for their legends on the S.S. Duckworth-Lewis, under the pelting hail. The Swan Song had peaked, and only one final verse remained. Sri Lankan hearts started beating faster and with fear-struck eyes, memories tainted in disappointment, but yet, still daring to hope and believe, they cleared their throats for the final verse.

It was only fitting that Sri Lanka would face India in the Finals; the team that they consistently struggled to beat in the recent past, specially in Finals. As Sri Lankan fans dreaded another blistering gut-wrenching Kohli innings, or a tsunami sized Helicopter shot from Dhoni, the team prepared for final battle. Thisara Perera came in for the impressive Seekkuge Prasanna, which was one crucial decision as it hindered India's options of using Mishra and Jadeja against the left handed hitter in the latter overs. Chandimal, once again, proving his courage and character, left him self out of his first ever world cup final as captain. Malinga headed out for the toss, and won one against Dhoni, and elected to field, knowing that India hadn't set a target to a formidable side in the whole tournament. In the back of his mind would have been the fact that Sri Lanka hadn't chased more than 39 in the whole tournament either, but it was a gamble he would have been willing to take, given India's chasing record. With a count down that pit Sri Lanka at 2 and India at 1, the game began.

If Sri Lanka wanted to prove a point about their mental strength in Finals,
India were the best team to do it against.
Kule and Mathews bowled four tight overs at the top, Sachithra and Herath then came in and plugged the big hits. Malinga made short bursts to try an put the Indian batsmen off track. Untill the 11th over, the cat and mouse continued. India rolled along at a run-a-ball, but never really got after the bowling. Then as he used to so many times during the most part of his career, Rohit Sharma threw his wicket away, chipping an orthodox Hera ball to short cover, where Sachi pouched a low catch. Enter Yuvraj Singh; and the contrast of an experienced campaigner who's out of form and the young gun who is in the longest purple patch ever known to cricket history was on show. Kohli cruised to 70 while Yuvraj couldn't differentiate ball from thin air. For every Kohli swish over cover, Yuvraj swatted flies outside off. For every Kohli's crack of the bat hitting ball at thunderous pace, there was a windy swoosh from Yuvraj missing the ball by a country mile. By the time he got out, India's momentum, run rate, confidence and chances of winning had slowly but surely started to demise. Malinga, Kulasekara and Sachithra then bowled what was perhaps the most impressive death bowling spell as a team in the whole tournament, and by restricting India to a 130, Sri Lanka had given them selves a chance to make history. With scars from 2012, faltering at chasing 137, Sri Lankan fans waited eagerly for that elusive victory, and bearing that hope in their hearts, the final words of the final verse they sang.

Kusal got a boundary and got out. Stone silence. But then the final words of the farewell began. Dilshan pulled and Mahela cut. Dilshan used his club with brute force, Mahela waved his wand with charm and grace. With four boundaries a piece, they knocked off a third of the target between them. They had both added their own little piece to the swan song. Sri Lanka's voice picked up. Hearts grew bigger, if they ever could get any bigger. And again, for the fifth time in seven years, Sri Lanka hoped. They prayed that their hour had finally arrived.

Since 1996, no Sri Lankan has ever deserved to win a World Cup
more than Sanga and Mahela
And cometh the hour, cometh the man. Kumar Chokshananda Sangakkara, who had been a shadow of the player he is during the tournament, who was only but a passenger in the team, played the innings that defined Sri Lanka's cricketing history for the past 18 years and the next 100 more with a half century that would be remembered for a lifetime. With a few lusty blows from Thisara Perera at the other end, Sangakkara sweeping his way to his 50, Sri Lanka's victory seemed not far. As the ball sailed flat in to the ropes staight backpast the bowler, Thisara roared. With him, so did Sri Lanka. Sangakkara jumped high in to the air and celebrated Sri Lanka's first world cup victory in almost two decades. The team raced to the pitch, and embraced Sanga; when the whole team had wanted him to have a world cup, he had won one for them. When the whole team had to carry him through the tournament, he had carried the whole team to the trophy in the final. When it was needed the most from him, he had delivered. He had tried with two half centuries in 2007 and 2009. Mahela had got a hundred in 2011, and Sri Lanka still lost, the first and only such occurrence. 2012 they both collapsed. But in 2014, with a composed 24 and a fluent calming 56, they had steered Sri Lanka to a world cup. The final verse had been played. Their legacy was complete.

With the perfect farewell for their two greats, and a world title against their name, Sri Lanka erupted. Sri Lanka erupted in Colombo, in Galle, in Kandy, in Kalmunai and in Jaffna. Sri Lanka erupted in Toronto, Brampton, Sydney, Melbourne, London, New York and in Dubai. Sri Lanka had finally won. The chokers tag, the jinx, the superstitions and the hoodoos, all were buried away with a silver trophy that Malinga lifted in to the air, as a silent tear trickled down one's face. Sri Lanka had not just won the cup, Sri Lanka had won the world.
At a time when Sri Lanka's ethnic stability is being questioned,
a unifying victory of such massive proportion could not have been better timed. 
I call my self the laptop spectator, for in Canada I do not have the luxury of watching cricket on Television. Whether I watch using the laptop or not, I am merely a spectator. All I do is watch. Unlike the players, I carry no weight, I bare no responsibility. Unlike them, I do not put an effort or endure pain during cricket games that the players do. I am nothing more than a pair of eyes starting at a screen. And for the past 18 years I've been nothing but that. For the happiness I feel, for the tears I cry of joy, for the electric feeling that runs through my veins, for the smile that I will wear on my face for the next hundred days, I have only the players to thank, for giving those pictures to stare at and hold close to my heart for the rest of my life.

So, thank you Kusal, for giving us a blistering start to the tournament by making Dale Steyn look like a net bowler at a division II club side. Thank you Thiri, for the two crucial innings against New Zealand and West Indies, for without which we would not have made it to the finals. Thank you Prasanna for your cameo in the semi final, hope you keep getting more chances to show your potential. Thank you Menda, even though you went for runs, your wicket of Albie won us the game in my opinion. Thank you for helping Sri Lanka create another world record against Netherlands. Thank you, Sachi for your tight spells of bowling through out the tournament. Your cricketing brain is one to admire, and your spirit and enthusiasm was one of the reasons for Sri Lanka's success. Also, you injuring Corey James Anderson was one of those subtle turning points of the whole tournament campaign for Sri Lanka.

Thank you Kule. Thank you so much. You have done loads and loads for this country although you quietly slip under the radar. That over against South Africa, the spell against England and that come back over against India, you are one of the most deserving players of a World Cup win. Thank you Hera, for again and again coming in to the team to save us from defeat. For that magical spell. For your sheer determination and never say die attitude. Thank you Thisara. Your three sixes in the final were the three happiest moments in my life, with the last one to hit the winning runs being the most happiest I've ever been and I ever will be. For that six, I cried the happiest tears of my life. Thank you for finishing it with a six! Thank you Angie. You are the rock in this team. You are who we depend on in our every hour of need. You are the future of this team and you must be the answers to Sri Lanka's prayers from the 2000s for a genuine fast bowling all rounder. True match winner, thank you. Thank you, Chandi. You brave brave boy! It doesn't matter if you stepped down by choice or not, even to take in that emotion, to be humble enough to wear the apron and carry drinks. Chandi, you are a leader for the ages. Your decision will be written in the history books as Sri Lanka's most selfless choice ever. Thank you, TM Dilshan. Your peaking at the right time during that game against West Indies was crucial for us. The way you threw your self around in the field, knowing that you are literally putting your body on the line for the country will be admired for ages. You have been a great servant of this little island from the day you walked in to the team. It was you who transformed this team in to a World Class T20 team with your batting in 2009. You put us at #1 in the rankings, almost single handedly. You deserve this. You really do. Thank you.

We do nothing for you, yet you do so much for us.
Thank you, Sri Lankan Cricket Team
Thank you, Lasith Malinga. You are the face of Sri Lanka now. You are the captain who has won the world. For us. For people like me. Thank you for playing for Sri Lanka with the passion that you do, regardless of how many fingers are being pointed at you for various reasons. Thank you for proving that arrogance and aggression are also needed in the field. Thank you for all the amazing spells you bowled, against South Africa, New Zealand, West Indies and India, if not for you Sri Lanka would never have won this world cup. Thank you for lifting that cup, and giving us a reason to smile for years and years to come. Thank you, captain.

Thank you, Kumar Sangakkara. I hate you. I hate you because you make it so hard for me to hate you. Why are you so good? How are you so good? Thank you for being superficially amazing with the bat, in a tournament I would have named you in the flop XI, before the final, in a match where I hoped you would sit out and made both Seekkuge and Thisara played. Thank you for proving me wrong. There's only to love about being wrong about you succeeding, because when you do and when we win, I am still the happiest person in the world. Thank you for saving the best for last. Thank you for showing that you can chase. Thank you for proving that you can win tournament finals. And last but not least, thank you for having Mahela's back. Thank you for winning this, even after he got out, at which point I did not think we would win. Thank you for being amazing, and making me look stupid.

Denagamage Proboth Mahela Desilva Jayawardane, little kids don't thank their heroes for being heroic. They simply expect from them. That's why they are heroes. They are always amazing. So although you are my hero, I sadly am not a kid anymore. At least not when Sri Lanka win finals, at which point I suddenly turn 6 years old and start running around screaming and crying and laughing and crying again and jumping on everyone and telling everyone how Mahela is finally a world champion. So thank you. Thank you for leading a team that needed a leader of your calibre. Sri Lanka would not be here without you if not for your genius tactics against New Zealand and India. The fact that Sri Lanka lost the one game you left the field as you broke your thumb, epitomizes your importance to this team. Thank you for not retiring in 2012, when we all knew you wanted to, being the captain, leading the team to a final at home. I saw it in your eyes, that was your moment, the moment you waited for all your life, to lift that trophy for all of Sri Lanka, and bow down on a high. But it was all shattered. So thank you for not giving up then. Thank you for backing your self and giving your self another shot at winning this. And you did. Lastly and most of all, thank you for being a champion. Thank you for being a part of this team, and winning a world cup and being a World Champion; for I would not want to live in a world where Mahela Jayawardane was not a world champion.

I do not know when I would die. But what I do know is that "when" I do will not matter, for I know when ever that would be, I would die a happy death, knowing that I was alive when Sri Lanka won the world cup.

And that is the most alive that I have ever felt.



Monday, 31 March 2014

Right Place and the Right Time

Sri Lanka v New Zealand, World T20 2014

Sri Lanka got mauled over by the English four days ago. It was a loss of despair and disappointment. They posted the highest first innings score at Chittagong. The English provided them with an unlimited supply of dropped catches, and got Mahela and Dilshan some runs against their names. Then, Mendis got hammered out of the park multiple times and Sri Lanka lost. Mendis will be dropped for the next game. Just at the right time.

Sri Lanka's over rate has been slow for two games, both South Africa and England. Chandimal had already been given a warning, but in all honesty, those two games went right down to the wire, Chandimal wouldn't have had it any other way. He's a brave captain. A captain with gambles up his sleeve. He would rather buy his time to conjure up a win than rush through the overs to save his grace. But regardless of how much daring Chandimal is more than Mathews, and probably even Sangakkara as a captain, his batting form has been woeful and his place in the team was merely as a captain passenger. After the England game, Chandimal was handed a one match ban. He too will not play against New Zealand. Just at the right time.

Malinga tossed the coin. Lost. Sri Lanka were put in. Malinga listed the whole bench before he could remember who was in the playing XI. Herath and Thirimanne were IN; the right place at the right time. Sri Lanka collapsed, not dramatically, but very progressively. If anyone had followed Sri Lanka in the past 2 to 3 months, they would have seen this coming. Sri Lanka has an extremely volatile batting order that fluctuates between extremely impressive like Sri Lanka at the 1996 World Cup and horridly poor as England at the 2013/14 Ashes and such collapses are never few and far between. But somewhere during the midst of it, Thirimanne and Mahela forged close to 50 runs between each other. Thisara and Sachithra provided some desperately needed boundaries towards the end, and without even batting out the full qouta of overs, Sri Lanka huffed and puffed to 1-1-9. The phone lines rang, went to a recording, then to voice-mail, then to a few more recordings. And finally, Rangana Herath picked up. Just at the right time.

In 21 balls, he turned the match on its head. 18 dots. 3 runs. 7 wickets; 5 for him self plus 2 run outs. He single handedly gigantisized 119, as opposed to how Ajantha Mendis microscopified 189. And not for the first time in recent history, he came in to the team from practically wilderness and saved Sri Lanka's pride. To compliment Herath's timely return to the side, Sachithra churned out his tight loopy offies and took out the rest from the other end. Malinga, Kule and Mathews kept a lid on the runs. Thisara Perera enjoyed his day in the field. Mahela made the drafts, Sanga drew the blue prints, Dilshan added his aggressive touch, Malinga was humble enough to let the seniors handle it and Sri Lanka, through an absolute gem of a team performance in the field, made it through to their umpteenth world cup semi final.

If Herath ever decides to get a tattoo
there won't be many more appropriate lines than "Better late than never" .
After being the pre-tournament favourites, and being rather mediocre against South Africa and England, Sri Lanka needed this. In order to realize their true stance and potential, Sri Lanka needed all of it. A thumping loss to put their egos in place, changes to the team that fine tunes the proceedings, a batting collapse to keep the batsmen humble, a test for the bowlers who couldn't defend 189 and a moral boosting victory that injects valuable confidence before the start of the semi finals; Sri Lanka needed all of it. And it was a victory that was needed and delivered, both at just the right time.

As much as Sri Lanka as a team needs confidence, Sri Lanka as a cricketing nation, as fans, need humility. For a team that has lost four world cup finals out of four consecutive appearances, humbleness is of the essence. Sri Lanka aren't by far the best team in the tournament, specially compared to the likes of India, West Indies and even at times Pakistan. The rise of India and the gentle fall of Sri Lanka, might still be the best thing that could happen to Sri Lanka, not to go in as red hot favourites with less pressure. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka have gone in as underdogs, as equals and as favourites to world cup finals, but there has been no addition to the cabinet since Arjuna sealed it in '96. And such losses have made me immune as a fan, as to how much hope I have towards Sri Lanka winning a final, for as of now and I've said this before and I'll say it again, supporting Sri Lanka to win a world tournament is like supporting Stoke City in the Premier League; you don't cry when you lose because you sort of expect them not to win in hindsight, but if they do win, the joy is beyond that of any United, Chelsea or Arsenal fan would ever know. Therefore, the semi final, may it be Pakistan or West Indies we play against, for me would be another chance to see Sanga-Mahela bat in a T20, and a win will only be a bonus.

After such a timely spirit raising win, Sri Lanka's cricket team needs to leave that past and those memories behind them and be a ruthless side that terrorizes anyone that comes between them and the trophy. But the same does not apply to its fans. At least until the trophy is won.


Friday, 28 March 2014

A Failed Conquest and Bowling Tactics

Sri Lanka v England, World T20 2014

After their mauling of age old political rivals; Netherlands, Sri Lanka would have expected to complete their revenge on all nations that have had previous or current political and economic control over their country, by thrashing England on Wednesday, convincingly beating India in the semi finals and go the full circle by completely destroying China in the final. But since China does not have a cricket team playing in the current world cup, and since Alex Hales is an unstoppable brutal hitter of a slippery cricket ball; the very cricket ball Ajantha Mendis can't seem to grip more than he could grip a soaped up frog with a moss coat, Sri Lanka's revenge on their arm twisting, gut wrenching masters will have to be fulfilled in a place other than a cricket field.

But Alex Hales was indeed unstoppable. How he made it to #1 of the world T20 batting rankings is a question even his parents have trouble explaining to their family friends, but why he is there, and the fact that it was no fluke and that he will remain there for a while, is no longer an arguable statement. A bowling attack that Netherlands made seem more dangerous than West Indies in the late 80s, Alex Hales made seem less competent and unpenetrative like an Indian pace attack in the late 90s. Lasith Malinga, who is Sri Lanka's best T20 bowler, was treated like Mick Lewis was treated by the South Africans at the Bullring so much so that Nuwan Kulasekara has now become Sri Lanka's spearhead. And while Sri Lanka's world collapsed with every slog sweep and lofted on drive from Hales, Eoin Morgan quietly flicked and tucked his way to a half century at 1.5 runs per ball. His team, under his captaincy, was supposed to be the one team who had no chance of winning what is otherwise supposed to be the most open world cup since England '99, and it was as if they said "Right, we are going to pick the strongest team in the tournament so far, and we are going to take their bowlers to the cleaners, and show 'em tea drinking pompous old pricks back home how it's done. Without KP." 

Even a 5-times-dropped Mahela gem couldn't salvage Sri Lanka a defendable target.
The more he scored, the better chance Hales had of getting a hundred.
But to be fair to the Sri Lankan bowlers, there was more dew on the pitch that night than there was water in Rathupaswala. To be fair to the attack, Kulasekara did bowl an incredible spell to save some grace. To be fair to Malinga and Sachithra, they did bowl their spells at an economy well under the required run rate. To be fair to Mathews, he shouldn't be blamed for having to bowl the last over of a game already lost by that stage. To be fair to Chandimal for that call, he knew he had to win it in the 18th and 19th overs because he didn't have enough runs to defend. He threw the kitchen sink and it didn't pay off. If Chandimal kept Malinga for the 20th and bowled Mathews on the 18th, Sri Lanka wouldn't have taken the game to the last over for Malinga to even bowl it. And last but not least, to be fair to Ajantha Mendis, he's a mediocre bowler with variations that are wildly uncontrollable even with a dry ball, let alone a wet one and should have been sitting in the dugout with his feet up, watching Rangana Herath bowl his 4 overs for under 25 runs.

Personally, I don't think Sri Lanka could have done anything different to win that game, the way Hales and Morgan played. Maybe if Mahela had held that catch, and had Thisara/Mathews come in earlier than Sanga to bat, and if Mendis had bowled at least 3 quality deliveries per over, the match would have been a lot closer. But some days things just don't go your way, and Sri Lanka are better off at taking control of what they can control, rather than dwelling on what they can't.

Such as, selecting Rangana Herath for the next game. And playing Lahiru Thirimanne as an extra batsman, instead of heave-ho Seekkuge, for the suspended Chandimal. And sticking to Mahela at one-drop rather than Sanga. New Zealand are a stronger side than England, both on form and on paper. They also have a very good track record against Sri Lanka in the recent past in T20s. Sri Lanka will have to win the game to qualify, it's as easy as that. Being the second game of the day, a lot will depend on the toss as well, which would have to be taken by Lasith Malinga, for the first time as Sri Lanka's captain.

Who would have thought? The frisky haired devil from Rathgama. Let's hope he can be a winning captain too.


Friday, 21 March 2014

Ten days of T20 Farewells

Sri Lanka v South Africa, World T20 2014

Sri Lanka play their first group game on the 22nd of March. Their last group game is on the 31st of March. In the space of these 10 days, Mahela Jayawardane and Kumar Sangakkara and quite possibly Rangana Herath and TM Dilshan will play their last T20 internationals for Sri Lanka, with the exception of a Semi final and a final, if they get there. It's not like neither of these players will never play for Sri Lanka again, all four will play ODIs and apart from Dilshan, the other three will keep playing Tests, so it's not like no one will ever see them bat or bowl in a Sri Lanka jersey. Also, it's T20. It's the instant noodles of cricket. It's the soda bottle format. It's the format West Indies are world champions at, that no ones gives a rats bum about. But it is also the only format that Sri Lanka are #1 in the world. 

It's an interesting time for Sanga and Mahela to announce their retirements, as I believe they would have both retired two years ago in Sri Lanka, they would have loved to leave an intricate legacy behind them, winning the world cup in home soil., if Malinga had managed to hold his horses against Samuels, and the batsmen had held their nerve, and chased down 120 to win the world title. But they didn't. And Sanga and Mahela didn't get their happy ending. And they would have decided to try and have a go at just one more, to get that elusive world title that has slipped both their grasps, which leaves a hole in what otherwise are two illustrious careers with magical numbers. Some would argue that it is a selfish choice in chase of personal accolades. And some would argue that it is a selfless sacrifice, barring all physical pain and mental stress, to give it one last go to win one for the country, as the two senior statesmen of the squad. I prefer to believe the latter, for I know without the two, Sri Lanka's chances at this world cup would be pretty grim. Pretty. Grim. Not two words you hear together too often. I get distracted too often.

Sanath Jayasuriya's not happy on how these two announced their retirements,
but he's got to understand they aren't pros like him at retiring.
How many times did he retire? 3 different times, was it?
They start their uphill battle against South Africa. South Africa are abysmal in the sub-continent. They are also rather appalling at World Cups. Add to it, the fact that their recent form against Sri Lanka has been something like 7 to 2, the formula reads Sri Lanka win by a huge margin tomorrow at the curtain raiser for Group I. Yes, we are in Group I, not II. The fact that the first group to play matches is called group II baffles me too. But from organizers who placed the hosts in a qualifying tournament, that posed a threat of the hosts being knocked out even before the actual tournament started, I would expect nothing more than more confusion.

But South Africa are South Africa. They beat Sri Lanka in home soil in a rain shortened game at the last world cup. In AB De Villiers, JP Duminy, David Miller, Quinten de Kock, Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis, if he is fit to play, they have the most technically explosive batting line up in the tournament. In Tsotsobe, Parnell and the newly acquired younger version of Alfonso Thomas; Brian Hendricks, and the menacing Morne Morkel, even without Dale Steyn, posses one of the most powerful pace attacks as well. And if Aron Phangiso and Imran Tahir can provide some rip, Sri Lanka can find them selves fighting for dear life, even before the business end of the tournament.

What this does though, is that it provides a perfect platform for Sanga, Mahela and Dilshan to soak up all that pressure and bow out in style. Sri Lanka will probably go with their settled top six of Kusal, Dilshan, Sanga, Mahela, Chandimal and Mathews. In my personal opinion, I'd then opt for the three spinners; Sachithra, Mendis and Herath, with the obvious choice of Malinga. The fast bowling all rounder would be a tussle between Thisara Perera and Nuwan Kulasekara, and based only on form, I'd go with Kula, as he's been hitting them better than Thisara, off late. But Sri Lanka has the choice of going with only two spinners, and both Thisara and Kula, as well. They could also opt for Seekkuge Prasanna, as the 3rd spinner. Either way, the way to Sri Lanka winning this game, and quite possibly the tournament is through big top order scores, late order hitting and strangling the opposition with spin, with short productive bursts of Malinga.

Sri Lanka's chances are bright, and if form stays faithful to them, another world cup semi final is well within reach. To talk of anything further, at this point, is crazy talk. All in due time.

Until then,

Friday, 7 February 2014

The difference between the two

Bangladesh v Sri Lanka. Day Four. 2nd Test. Chittagong

I'm not a big fan of Kumar Sangakkara. I don't adore him. He's not my favourite cricketer. I don't think he's the best batsman to play for Sri Lanka, let alone the world, and I don't think I'd ever adore him to the levels of Aravinda de Silva or Mahela Jayawardane. But that is a mere personal opinion. It takes nothing away from the Great Batsman that Kumar Sangakkara is.

He's got Test centuries in all the test playing countries, except for the West Indies which is due to the fact that he's only played 4 tests there, and the test tour to the West Indies was cancelled by the SLC when Sangakkara was in prime form, in mid 2013. Sangakkara holds the highest career average for any cricketer who has played over 20 tests since the 1990s. He's got hundreds against Australia in Australia, South Africa in South Africa when both teams were #1 in the world. He's saved Sri Lanka from defeat in green tops of Southampton to dust bowls in Abu Dhabi, and he's driven them to victory in breezy Wellington and in scorching Lahore. So, after killing the Namien Lion, slaying the Hydra, shooting down the Stymphalian birds, capturing the Cretan Bull, and all the rest of it, isn't it fair for Hercules to feast at the top of Mount Olympus?

To all those who undermine Sangakkara's knocks in Bangladesh, one must only look at Sanga's overall record to realize that such comments are only a bunch of balderdash. If the Multi-Barrel missle launcher is designed to wipe out entire cities at long range, it takes no Einstien to figure out what happens if you fire it at the rioters in front of the camp. Sangakkara merely feasted on a friendly bowling attack and a placid pitch. True, if Sanga had gone on to make 401* and had broken Lara's record, it would have been a shame for Lara, who scored that against the likes of Harmisson, Hoggard, Flintoff and Jones, the very attack that decimated Australia in the following year. But what is Sanga to do? Get out cheaply, because it's only Bangladesh and it's not fair to score runs against them? Get to 50 and throw it away, and have those very same critics asking him questions about Sanga's ability being tested by the mediocre Bangla bowlers? Sanga has scored runs all over the world, against the toughest attacks, on the toughest pitches in the toughest situations and he has earned a right to have a day off against Bangladesh and score a few easy hundreds.

Another interesting fact is considering what would have happened to Sri Lanka had Sanga not got the runs he did. Sri Lanka's first innings total would have been 268, meaning they would have conceded a first innings lead of 158. Then, if the second innings hundred is taken off, Sri Lanka would be 200 for 4, leading by 42 runs, with 6 wickets in hand, and 90 overs left. If that doesn't emphasize how important Sangakkara's innings were in this test, I don't know what will. At a time when Sri Lanka possess a bowling attack weak enough to lose to Bangladesh, Sangakkara's 319* and 105 was the saving grace for them, without which Sri Lanka would be staring down their 4th test series draw after winning the first one and taking the lead. There are times I would argue why I don't consider Sangakkara to be the best batsman to have played for Sri Lanka, but then there are times like these, when I know I cannot win that argument.

Sangakkara's hunger for runs is considered one of his best traits.
Besides Sanga's heroics, Sri Lanka's weaknesses were once again on show. Mendis and Dilruwan bowled until the batsmen gave up and threw their wickets away. Lakmal looked good in patches, but looked as if he needed a rest, having bowled over 150 overs since the first test in Abu Dhabi. Nuwan Pradeep was once again a deer in headlights. The lapses in the field didn't help either. After a certain point it started getting a bit slap-stick, Kithruwan dropping a catch, then catching one two balls later only for it to be called No-Ball. Dimuth dropped a skier at the dying moments of the day and it all but sealed the comedy relief that was much needed for a test match that was thus far a bit boring.

Chandimal also sneaked in a century, to the dismay of many. Some because it was sort of a Shane Watson effort; of not playing well the whole series and then getting a useless 100 on the last innings on the verge of being dropped, to seal his place for three more tests, and some because it delayed the declaration by about 10 overs and left the Bangladeshis less than 100 overs to bat out for a draw. Both reasons are arguable. Chandimal's 100 steadied the innings with Sanga's, for at one stage Sri Lanka were 78/3, which made his innings a bit more worthy than useless. It also ensured that Sri Lanka wasn't in a position to lose, specially after their debacle in Sharjah, not too long ago. Although he could have scored a bit quicker once Sanga had got out, Chandimal's innings has put Sri Lanka to a position from where they can only win, and by doing so, he has probably sealed his place in the XI for the 1st Test at Lord's, ahead of Kithruwan Vithanage, given that Prasanna Jayawardane is fit for the tour.

That leaves Sri Lanka with 90 overs to wrap Bangladesh out, which seems highly improbable with this bowling line up and the flatness of the wicket, but considering the fact that Bangladesh are also known to press the panic button, like they did in the first test, a result for Sri Lanka is still a possibility. It is also the final 90 overs for Nuwan Pradeep to gain some confidence ahead of the England series and for Lakmal to be up to par with his consistency, but for Dilruwan and Mendis, it should be a matter of proving that they are worthy of selection, as neither are expected to play test cricket until Sri Lanka host South Africa for 3 tests in July of 2015.

With a draw looming ahead, a dull day of cricket awaits. For Sri Lanka's sake, let's hope that would not be the case. For now though, it is time for everyone to look back an enjoy a tale of two innings from Sanga, which clearly was the difference between the two teams in this test.

Over the years, he's made it hard for anyone not to like him. Even me.

Catch you at the end of it all,

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Leading by example

Bangladesh v Sri Lanka. Day One. 2nd Test. Chittagong

For the past half a decade or so, the Sri Lankan cricket team has been under the guidance and parenthood of two extra-ordinary gentlemen. Although several different captains have taken the reins, the younger brigade has always been under the watchful eyes of Mahela Jayawaradane and Kumar Sangakkara; the mommy and daddy of the Sri Lankan cricket team. Although there is going to be controversy over who's mommy and who's daddy, we have to resort to such terminology, as under the current laws of Sri Lanka, they can't both be dads to the same child. Regardless of gender roles, the two stalwarts have, on many occasions, weathered the storm for Sri Lanka, leading by example on tough wickets, showing the kids how its done. On a slow, uneven surface in Chittagong, they were on show once again.  

Sri Lanka, having rested their two best Test bowlers since the post-Murali era, the only two bowlers to average less than 35 runs per wicket, have had to resort to the raw pace of Nuwan Pradeep and the uncovered mysteries of Ajantha Mendis. Although the reports say both Eranga, and Herath have flown back to Sri Lanka due to injury, it could well be that they are being rested for a tougher and more physically demanding tour in England. If they are indeed being rested, reporting that they are injured is quite misleading, but Sri Lanka have been known to commit to such kindergarten tactics to avoid controversy. The irony of it. 

Angelo Mathews won an important toss and got first use of the wicket. With Bangladesh announcing their team with three front-line spinners and only one pacer, Mushfiqur Rahim might have winced a bit when Mathews made sure those spinners will not be bowling on the fourth innings. The wincing would have faded when Dimuth and Kaushal both gifted their wickets to him, specially Dimuth, getting his routine 30 and giving it away when it seemed he was set for a big one. It always seems though as if Dimuth sees off the new ball, and gives it away as soon as the shine has come off it. Although one may argue, that is exactly what is required of him as he has consistently done in the past 7 innings, he may want to consider a little street cricket trick; getting retired hurt after getting to 40 and seeing off the new ball, and coming back once the 2nd new ball is due and see that off too. It might be the only way for him to get a hundred.

Once the openers were back in the hut, The Sanga and Mahela show began. On a wicket that Sri Lanka averaged less than a run per over until the 10th over, Sanga and Mahela just accumulated the crease and there by the runs, with the most swiftest and most graceful approach imaginable. They tapped the ball on the head on merit, left it alone when they felt lazy, and occasionally came down the track and lofted it for six when they got bored. Sanga brought up his 34th test century, the most by a Sri Lankan batsman, all 4 of his last coming against Bangladesh. That would be something he would want to change, come the tour of England. Mahela got to another 50; his form since the pair in Abu Dhabi seems to have resurfaced to what it was sometime back in 2006/07. Sanga and Mahela added 178 runs. 178 beautifully accumulated runs. It was a lesson, to all the kids watching at home and all the kids in the playing XI, on how to bat on such surfaces. When these two are going well, all seems right with the world.

Fiction provides us with Merlin and Arthur, Sherlock and Watson, Frodo and Sam.
Reality betters it by presenting us Sanga and Mahela.
Towards the latter parts of the day Mahela subsided to the uneven bounce when a Mahmudulla off break kept low and struck him plum while playing across the line. Mathews and Chandimal then showed everyone why they aren't mature enough to take over the reins from their predecessors, by getting out to balls that never deserved wickets, and shots that never deserved a place on a first day evening of a test. Chandimal's failures have been emphasized with the performances of less senior batsmen, and if a large 2nd innings score isn't tallied against his name, he might struggle to find a place in the team for England if Prasanna Jayawardane is fit. 

Sri Lanka will come in to bat on the 2nd morning with Sanga on a 160 not out and young Kithruwan Vithanage, both who will look to capitalize on the solid base that has been laid for a towering first innings score. Vithanage's previous two worthwhile contributions with the bat have both come against Bangladesh on two very flat wickets. He will face his first test on a less generous surface, and will look to consolidate his place in the team as a dependable yet aggressive number 7, a much needed entity in the Sri Lankan batting line up, while also booking his tickets to England later this year.

At some point Sri Lanka will also have to come out and bowl, given that the rain gods will not interrupt, and it would be interesting to see how they cope with the absence of both Eranga and Herath. Their stats do not convince that they are capable of taking 20 wickets, but this would be more than a good opportunity to prove it wrong.

They say that the second and third day is when the direction of a test match is decided. 
Catch you at the end of it,

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Quicker than expected

Bangladesh v Sri Lanka. Day 4. 1st Test. Dhaka

If the last test that Sri Lanka played was any indication as to why over conservatism and negativity can make you lose games from positions you could win, Bangladesh re-assured Sri Lanka's safe-play methods by showing exactly how over confidence and positivity can cause in self destruction. To a keen student of the game, both games were lessons of how cricket, being the funny game, is a matter of handling different situations with different approaches, with the balance of the two extremes being the most decisive factor. Bangladesh though, just didn't seem to find a single gear between neutral and top. Looking back the scorecard, it might even seem that they were on reverse at some point.

There are two ways to go about the game when you are almost 500 runs behind and have two days to bat out for draw. The more common and sensible approach would be to tire down the opposition, putting a price on one's wicket, and frustrate the opposition bowlers with every dying minute. Of course, you might ultimately get one with you name on it, specially on a deterioration pitch like that, but at least you are making sure the bowler needs to work hard for your wicket. Only then could a team take the game to the 5th day, and give themselves a chance of defying a victory for the opposition, by means of weather, at least. Even if you had lost, the opposition would have had to earn it.

Or there is another approach. The approach Bangladesh took. The same approach we saw from England, in the 4th innings of the final Ashes test. Bangladesh might think they batted as if they had nothing to lose, but it only looked like they batted as if they had nothing to gain. Wickets were gifted at times Sri Lanka didn't even look threatening. Shaminda Eranga's bouncers were made to look like Mitchel Johnson on a Perth wicket, while Suranga Lakmal's reverse swing was played as well as the Aussies played Simon Jones in '05. Dilruwan Perera's flat, straight "off breaks" were treated with the fear and respect that Murali would get on a 5th day dust bowl at Galle. Bangladesh made everything look so much harder for themselves while making everything looks much easier for the Sri Lankans. They just went on self destruct mode. It was Hara-Kiri. Suicide, to the point where it's not hard to find irony in the fact they call themselves "The Tigers". 

To be fair to the Sri Lankan bowlers, they did bowl in good areas consistently. The fast bowlers used the short ball to good effect in the first hour, particularly Shaminda Eranga, who seems to know just where it is most uncomfortable for a batsman when he needs to pitch it short. Lakmal was exceptional with the old ball, getting it to tail in considerably. If he could keep the skill and fitness at this same level, he's going to be a handful with that Duke ball in early summer conditions in England. Dilruwan bowled four rubbish balls an over and the Bangladeshis were generous enough to hand him 5 wickets in the other two good deliveries he bowled per over. Although credit needs to be given for his maiden 5-wicket haul, he will need to improve on his consistency if he is to prove an able partner to Herath, for taking 5 for 100 in 20 overs, out of a total score of 230 will just not be good enough against better sides.

Instead of getting much purchase "from" the wicket,
Dilruwan's approach was to purchase wickets for the trade of runs.
Although Eranga's bouncers, and Dilruwan's straighter one and the whole end to the match seemed much quicker than expected, Sri Lanka will take many positives from this game. Kaushal's solidity and Kithruwan's flamboyance, Dilruwan's ability to take wickets out of nowhere and the fast-bowlers' consistency will be things they will look to emulate in the rest of the tour, and also take with them to England where things are expected to be severely tougher. Although Bangladesh may be the worst yardstick available in the Test arena to measure any sort of performance, specially with the sort of attitude they played the last game, runs scored remain to be runs recorded and wickets taken will always be wickets tallied. No matter how unfair, or mismatching or minnow bullying one would like to call it;

A win is a win.

Catch you before the next game.