As Sri Lanka is set to play one of the emerging powers in world cricket, Afghanistan, in their second group stage game in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019, the biggest question that remains is how they will tackle their South Asian opponents, who are no longer a team which can be taken lightly.
The Afghans are sure to play to their strengths, their mystery spinners Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rehman, who have been terrific in the recent past. Afghanistan skipper Gulbadin Naib, on the eve of their Sri Lanka clash, reckoned that both Mujeeb and Rashid can spin the ball on any surface, even the green deck which is set be unleashed in Cardiff again.
Last year in the UAE, when Sri Lanka played Afghanistan, the former was blown away. This resulted in one of Sri Lanka’s most embarrassing group stage exits in the history of Asia Cups. The teams have only played each other once in World Cups where Sri Lanka scraped through to a close win in 2015, during Afghanistan’s World Cup debut.
This time around, the onus will be on Sri Lanka to play fearless cricket and shut out the rising threat of the Afghans. After failing to click in all three departments against the Blackcaps last Saturday, Sri Lanka simply cannot afford to go down at the hands of the only team that is currently below them in the ICC rankings.
Ten years ago, the ODI mantra for Sri Lanka was to put 250+ on the board and then strangle their opposition with the plethora of spinners in their ranks, who were adept at keeping a lid on the scoring rate. Today, Sri Lanka don’t possess that luxury. The question is if they even know what their biggest strength is?
Sri Lanka had bowlers who were mysterious and unorthodox. Not anymore. Now it’s Afghanistan’s turn, with teams going through hours and hours of footage to untangle the Afghan bowlers, not the Sri Lankans.
Whilst Afghanistan have taken huge strides as a cricketing nation over the past few years, Sri Lanka have remained idle and in a sense have receded. These new world beaters were just an Associate Nation until they received test status in 2017. In the previous decade or so, the non-Test playing nations as well as the teams outside the top eight feared playing Sri Lanka. Sadly, that’s not the case anymore.
Afghanistan have many characteristics of the Sri Lanka from two decades ago. They have become fearless in playing top nations, whereas Sri Lanka have failed at the basics in limited overs cricket over the past few years, which is why they have the lowest win percentage amongst all participants at the current World Cup.
It wasn’t the ideal start a team could hope for in a mega event such as the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019. Sri Lanka…
Sri Lanka’s young hopefuls have not lived up to expectation, which casts doubts over the pipeline of talent in the country. The quality of cricket at the schools level has seemingly gone down a few notches, with most coaches looking to ‘win at any cost’ rather than produce quality players. There are various negative remarks over the competitiveness in the country’s domestic system, which in a way has been deemed true when you see the talent pool. The other cricketing nations have wholeheartedly adopted the techniques and strategies of modern-day limited-overs cricket, but not Sri Lanka.
When Sri Lanka announced their World Cup squad, they left out two ‘fearless’ and ‘unorthodox’ cricketers in Niroshan Dickwella and Akila Dananjaya. Yes, they were dropped for poor form, but some bold and daring is required to change the course of things and these players have at least played ODI cricket in the past two years. Instead, Sri Lanka went back to the tried and tested, traditional type of players in Lahiru Thirimanne and Jeevan Mendis.
Angelo Mathews, Sri Lanka’s most experienced batsman must play a pivotal role and bat as high as possible in the batting order. Mathews must play fearless cricket and prove that he still has some gas left in the tank.
The bowlers failed to grab a single wicket against New Zealand, but if Sri Lanka are to defeat Afghanistan, the bowlers have a huge role to play. They shouldn’t be afraid to experiment against the free-flowing, aggressive Afghan batsmen.
Sri Lanka’s spearhead Lasith Malinga also believed that the bowlers will have to step up and win games, “All the bowlers have a big role to play because they have the ability to change the game. It’s all about gaining some confidence and believing in our skills. We need to be mentally tough.” He said on the eve of the Afghanistan game.
Sri Lanka does not have bowlers who hit the 145 kmph mark regularly, they do not have the luxury of in-form power hitters at the top order and they don’t have wicket-taking spin options in the middle overs. Which is the very reason, Sri Lanka’s seventh ODI captain since the last World Cup, Dimuth Karunaratne, who is also a relatively new-comer to modern-day ODI cricket was forced to adopt traditionalism (despite a valiant 52*, he ducked a free-hit off Lockie Ferguson) in the Sri Lankan approach.
He also said that Sri Lanka does not have the extraordinary, special and unorthodox kind of players in their line-up, “There’s a limit to our capabilities, and if you compare us with some other teams, realistically we are a side with limited talent.” Karunaratne said after their opening game.
The various selection committees in power in the recent past have shuffled players like a pack of cards. Since the last World Cup, nearly five dozens of players have represented Sri Lanka and approximately 28 have debuted. However, the best way forward would be to instill a selection committee for at least four years so that they know who to remove, who to select and work in unison.
At this crucial juncture, it’s a no brainer that Sri Lanka Cricket is in dire straits and that they will somehow have to get through the World Cup with the resources available to them. There is nothing left but to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the opposition. Play fearless and play with nothing to lose, because there is literally ‘nothing to lose’.