New faces, old names and selection surprises – Asantha De Mel responds

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With Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) announcing their fresh-look 17-member squad on Tuesday (5th February) for the upcoming South Africa Tests – ThePapare.com exclusively caught up with Chief Selector, Asantha De Mel to discuss on the wholesale changes.

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The biggest surprise was leaving out Dinesh Chandimal, the regular Test captain, who had a horrid time in Australia, where Sri Lanka were thrashed in both games.

In four innings, Chandimal made only 24 runs while batting at no. 3. Despite scoring only one half-century in his last five Tests, he averages 40.93 while captaining the Test team. Opening batsman Dimuth Karunaratne will lead the team in Chandimal’s absence.

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“We feel [Dinesh] Chandimal is mentally down due to his lack of form. He is definitely not out of contention for future tours and will always be in our plans. But, this break was necessary. De Mel said.

With the ongoing SLC Premier League – Tier ‘A’ competition ending next weekend, Chandimal will only have one four-day match apart of the List ‘A’ and T20 games to regain his form before the ICC Cricket World Cup.

Another senior player who faced the axe was senior off-spinner Dilruwan Perera. He failed to pick up a single wicket in the final game in Canberra and captured only two wickets in the Brisbane Test. Earlier, during the New Zealand matches, he was only able to take four wickets in two games.

“Dilruwan [Perera] has been carrying a small ankle injury in the past few weeks and have not been effective outside Asia, especially during the recent series’. Hence, we decided to leave him out. “ De Mel further stated.

22-year old former Royalist, Lasith Embuldeniya, a left-arm spinner earned his maiden call-up after an impressive 14-wicket outing against Ireland ‘A’ last month in their two-match unofficial Test series. In 21 first-class matches, Embuldeniya has accounted for 125 scalps at 20.13. He will fight for a place in the final XI with left-arm chinaman Lakshan Sandakan in Durban, which holds fond memories for Sri Lanka.

De Mel was praising heavily their newest left-arm spin addition; “In South African conditions, we will need a spinner who can give the ball some extra revs and extract turn. Lasith [Embuldeniya] is a genuine turner of the ball and we want to groom him as the replacement for Rangana Herath. “

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Talented top-order batsman Sadeera Samarawickrama and middle-order batsman Roshen Silva are some of the other casualties due to the massive changes done by De Mel’s committee. Samarawickrama was never given an opportunity in New Zealand or Australia, while Silva played one Test each in New Zealand and Australia but managed only 51 runs across 4 innings.

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32-year old opening batsman Kaushal Silva have been recalled to the side on the back of a successful domestic season for SSC. He was sacked after the England series at home but then averaged 79.16 this season with a tally of 950 runs in 8 games. He smashed the highest score of the season, 273 against Army SC two weeks ago.

“By bringing back Kaushal [Silva], we wanted to add some more experience to our top three. He can bat anywhere in the top three and have scored plenty of runs this season. We saw how [Lahiru] Thirimanne used his experience and batted as an opener. Sadeera [Samarawickrama] failed in the T20I match and could not impress much in the tour match. He is a very talented batsman but with plenty of other openers in the side, he had to miss out.” De Mel clarified.

Sri Lanka, by far possess the least-competitive domestic system amongst the Test-playing nations with 23 clubs playing first-class cricket. Over the years, the domestic structure has been criticized heavily by former cricketing legends, current players, coaches and critics, yet none of the administrators have done anything to sort out the root problem.

But, De Mel believes that the players who have done well in domestic Cricket should be given a go as the current crop of players in the national team have not justified their selection.

Uncapped Oshada Fernando has 6 tons and 4 half-centuries to his name, amassing 1181 runs in 9 games in the 2018/19 Tier ‘A’ competition to sit on the top of the run-scorers list while Angelo Perera, a highly rated cricketer, became only the second player to smash two double centuries in the same first-class game. Both the right-handers have been picked to play Test cricket for the very first time.

“When the team is losing this badly, we had to take some tough calls and bring in some players like Oshada [Fernando] and Angelo [Perera], who are currently high in confidence and amongst the runs. Yes, there is a massive gap between Sri Lankan Domestic Cricket and International Cricket. But, if we don’t give chances to the players who have scored tons of runs in the only available tournament in the country, we don’t do any justice to them. “ He said.

Middle-order batsman Dhananjaya De Silva has been a complete flop in seaming conditions with his technique found to be wanting. Yet, he will make the trip to South Africa purely due to the ability to bowl a few off-spinners.

“Dhananjaya [De Silva] has also not been in good nick but we need someone who can bowl a couple of overs since we only play four bowlers. He will have to fight for a place in the playing XI with Milinda Siriwardena, who is also a capable part-time spinner. “ De Mel stated.

With the regular Sri Lankan seamers succumbing to injuries in every match they play, the selectors have found another uncapped seamer, Mohammed Shiraz, 23-year old right-arm seamer from BRC. He is the highest wicket-taker amongst fast-bowlers in the current domestic season, picking up 23 wickets in 7 games on non-responsive pitches.

Shiraz will surely be in contention to make his debut since the spearhead of the attack, Suranga Lakmal might only play one game in South Africa due to a stiff back, which kept him out of the Canberra Test.

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“With all the regular seamers out due to injuries, Mohommad Shiraz who can bowl seam-up and can generate pace around 130kmph to 135kmph was picked. Asitha Fernando was the only other option but the physio have given us a report that he is still not fit to play Test cricket since he’s recovering from a recent side strain. Suranga [Lakmal] is our number one fast-bowler and we need to manage his workload. So, there is a big chance that he will play only one match in South Africa” De Mel concluded.

The first Test will be played in Durban, starting from 13th February with the second Test scheduled to be played in Port Elizabeth from 21st February. Sri Lanka will also play five ODIs and three T20Is following the Tests.