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,