‘RIP Sri Lankan Cricket’. That was The Island’s headline when Sri Lanka lost to Bangladesh in a Test match at home in March this year.
Since that loss, Sri Lanka have slumped even lower. Players and administrators have often said that poor performances are expected in a transition, which although partly true, does not explain why Sri Lanka have lost nearly everything over the last one year.
When India arrived on their shores in June, there was nothing to suggest that Sri Lanka would hold a candle to Virat Kohli and Co, and sure enough, they went down 3-0 in the Tests. But when the limited-overs leg got underway, the common opinion was that there would be a switch in attitude with the introduction of some colour. It’s the least one expected from the former world champions.
All one got to see instead was meek surrender of a once feared opposition.
Sri Lanka were swept in the five-match One-Day International series, and were not offered reprieve in the one-off Twenty20 International on Wednesday (September 6) either.
Such has been Sri Lanka’s lack of form, and such has been India’s killer instinct.
It would have been natural had some of the intensity from the Test series died out as India’s limited-overs side got ready for what they must have anticipated would be a stiff test. White-ball cricket always did bring out the best in Sri Lanka, and that is what India must have prepared for.
It was clear from even before the start of the series that India had the 2019 World Cup in mind. These five games – especially the last two – gave them the perfect platform to experiment, as Kohli stressed each time there was a microphone in his face, and India did so by the chunk.
They stuck to a set XI for the first three games, clinching the series 3-0, but once that box was checked, six changes were evidenced. More significantly, India never played a set combination even when the playing XI remained the same. There was plenty of movement in the batting order and a few in the bowling combination too.
“Teams will find it difficult to set a pattern for us and we’ll always stay ahead of the game or at least try to, and more often than not we’ll end up executing those things.”
This is what the Indian skipper had to offer when speaking of experimentation. It is easy to believe that this theory is watertight in the light of what has unravelled in this series, but what if, or rather when, the experiments meddle with your chances of a win?
To get away with shuffling the order against Sri Lanka in state was not much of a task — even there in Pallekele, India nearly made a mess of things when Akila Dananjaya ran through their batting order like a hot knife through butter — but teams like Australia will go for the kill when the knife is gift-wrapped.
“We don’t mind losing a few games in this process.”
We will see about that if and when a few losses come their way and the winning momentum is lost, but that is a concern is for another time. For now, things could not be rosier. Runs have flowed and the wickets have come in bushels.
Two of India’s batsmen was in particularly good touch with Kohli smashing two centuries on his way to an ODI-series-high 330, not to forget the 82 in the one-off T20I, and Rohit Sharma reaching 302 with two three-figure knocks himself. Shikhar Dhawan, after a century in the opening game, did not make the most of this chances to beef up his resume, but he will not mind that too much at this stage.
While that may be the case for most members in the side, this was MS Dhoni’s first chance to show the selectors that he was still relevant to Indian cricket, perhaps even until the World Cup. MSK Prasad had said that Dhoni will need to put up the numbers or things might change, and with his head seemingly on the chopping board, Dhoni came up with 45, 67 and 49. Not once did he get out in the series.
This performance should keep him in the mix for at least the upcoming series against Australia.
On the bowling front, too, India were brilliant with Jasprit Bumrah picking up an unprecedented 15 wickets, while Bhuvneshwar Kumar proved that he has found the right balance between pace and swing. Shardul Thakur was a bit of a letdown but he should be given a longer rope. Axar Patel, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal had a point to prove after India rested R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. They grabbed their chances and put up promising performances with Axar as the frontman.
But there was the one thing that India failed to tick off their list this series: Fielding. They pride themselves in being one of the finest fielding sides in the world, and although that is true most of the time, on a couple of occasions in Sri Lanka, they were appalling.
Kohli did not see it quite like that. He defended the side’s performances, and called their sloppy show in the final ODI a one-off. There was enough evidence to prove otherwise, and it certainly is an area that needs work.
Sri Lanka has the same concern, but in their case, it was one of many.
Firstly, injuries have played a major role in them putting up below-par teams on the park. Dodgy selections have played a part too, of course. Not having a set captain for the duration of the series – because of injuries and a suspension for Upul Tharanga – also affected the team’s stability. After Tharanga was banned for two games because of a slow over-rate, Chamara Kapugedera was brought out of obscurity and put in charge. Once he was ruled out of the series with a bad back, Lasith Malinga was made the stand-in skipper for the stand-in skipper until Tharanga returned to take over for the final ODI and the T20I.
“Too many cooks,” blurted Nic Pothas afterwards. The interim coach was thereon forced to practice diplomacy, and in doing so, all one heard was that Sri Lanka were going through a phase of transition. If so, it has to be the longest and most humiliating transition in recent memory – they were not able to cross 250 runs even once in the limited-overs matches.
So embarrassing was the situation that even the selection committee resigned; the Sanath Jayasuriya-led panel cited the bottle-throwing incident in Pallekele during the fourth ODI as the tipping point but they might have made up their minds already. Although ugly, one cannot blame the spectators for their reaction. There was one such show of agitation earlier in the series too as crowds thronged the team bus after their loss in the first game, shouting slogans to get rid of Thilanga Sumathipala, the Sri Lanka Cricket boss.
If rumours are to be believed, Sumathipala might not be around for too much longer. How that will change the landscape of Sri Lanka cricket remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure, Indian cricket is headed upwards and few will want to come face-to-face with the juggernaut.