The year ended in rather disappointing fashion for Sri Lankan fans as their team lost the Boxing Day Test in Christchurch by eight wickets, but 2014 was an eventful and brilliant season for them in every sense.
There were lows, like the 5-0 whitewash in India and the home Test series defeat to South Africa, but the highs in all three formats of the game certainly outnumbered the disappointing moments.
Their statistics were impressive too. Having played 12 Tests, Sri Lanka won five and lost three while in ODIs they won 20 and lost 12, the cream of their success being the lifting of the Asia Cup.
They were brilliant in Twenty20 internationals, winning eight of nine matches of which the high was undoubtedly lifting the ICC World Twenty20. Indeed, it was in the shortest format of the game Sri Lanka made a telling impact by winning the title having ended up losing finalists in 2009 and 2012. Questions were asked about Sri Lanka’s ability to handle pressure in big games. Fingers were pointed at some star players who failed to fire in finals, particularly against India. Answering all critics, Lasith Malinga led the side to triumph in the World T20 final over India and the team received a rousing welcome back home.
Their sweetest win this year came in England when they won their first ever Test series on English soil. The build-up to the series against England saw Sri Lankan players fuming. For two decades since gaining Test status, England had offered Sri Lanka just one-off Tests. It all changed after Sri Lanka won their maiden Test match in England in 1998 and since then the ECB had hosted them for three Tests. But driven by the financial lucrative series against India, the ECB accommodated India for a five-match series this summer while allocating Sri Lanka only two Tests. That had already fired up the players and what took place two weeks prior to the series added fuel to that fire.
England had wooed Sri Lankan coach Paul Farbrace to join the ECB a fortnight before the tour. Sri Lanka’s senior players had been drawing up plans with Farbrace for the challenge against England and now with the defection of the coach the opposition camp knew exactly what Sri Lanka’s plans were. Farbrace’s defection left Sri Lankan cricket in disarray.
Batting coach Marvan Atapattu was put in charge as head coach for the tour and the determined Sri Lankan outfit held onto a nervous draw at Lord’s in the first Test before winning at Headingley with one ball to spare. The 1-0 series win was Sri Lanka’s first ever on English soil. Prior to the series, Sri Lanka’s seam attack had been ridiculed by former England captain Michael Vaughan as a county attack and the bowlers did a commendable job to help their team to a memorable win.
There was a home series win over Pakistan while away from home the Sri Lankans missed out on a fine opportunity to record a series win against the same opponents. Sri Lanka came for the third Test in Sharjah with a 1-0 lead and from the outset it was clear they wanted a draw. After winning the toss, they batted for almost two days, scoring less than 2.5 runs an over. Eventually when Pakistan began their second innings requiring 302 in 59 overs to win, Angelo Mathews went ultra-defensive and ended up paying a heavy price as Pakistan won in 57.3 overs to square the three-match series.
However, the lowest point for the Sri Lankans in 2014 came when they suffered a 5-0 whitewash in ODIs against India. It was Sri Lanka’s first ever 5-0 whitewash.
After the home series against Pakistan, the Sri Lankan squad undertook a fitness programme that they were told would come in handy ahead of a busy international schedule that included seven home ODIs against England, seven more ODIs and two Tests in New Zealand followed by the World Cup. Suddenly, once West Indies pulled out of their tour of India, Sri Lanka Cricket received an invitation from the BCCI to fill the void created by West Indies’ withdrawal and SLC agreed despite vehement opposition from players. The players’ grouse was that they had been not doing any skill training for weeks as they had been only concentrating on fitness.
The Sri Lankans were not prepared for the challenge in India and suffered a humiliating loss. The defeated demoralised the players while fans lost interest.
Star batsman Kumar Sangakkara had a brilliant year, as did left-arm spinner Rangana Herath. Sangakkara was the highest run-scorer in both Tests and ODI cricket in 2014 while Herath was the highest wicket-taker in Tests with 60.
Sangakkara accumulated over 1400 runs in Tests and over 1250 runs in ODIs. He averaged 46 in ODIs while his Test average was 71 in 2014. Not just the numbers, but his contributions were crucial for Sri Lanka’s success. There was a maiden triple-hundred for the 37-year-old in Bangladesh and he followed that up with a much cherished maiden Test hundred at Lord’s. His contributions in England made the difference as the left-hander accumulated 346 runs in four innings with one century and three half-centuries.
Into the bargain, his 39 dismissals were the most by a wicketkeeper this year in ODIs. His presence is so crucial for the team that the selectors have requested him to delay his retirement from Tests.
Herath has undergone multiple surgeries on his knees in the last 18 months, but his enthusiasm never fades. The 36-year-old picked up 60 wickets in ten Tests this year and ended 2014 as the highest wicket-taker with Mitchell Johnson finishing second with 47. Herath was at times required to contain and at other times to attack and he did both jobs to perfection. Sri Lanka’s bowling deficiencies without him was badly exposed in Christchurch as Brendon McCullum slammed 195 in 134 deliveries in the Boxing Day Test.
He was sparingly used in limited-overs games in order to preserve him for the longer version. But whenever Sri Lanka were in trouble, Herath was called up and he delivered. During the World T20, the team wasn’t getting the desired results from their spin bowlers and eventually they reverted back to Herath and he didn’t disappoint.
In the crucial match against New Zealand in Chittagong, Sri Lanka managed only 119 and with a target of six runs per over the Kiwis were favourites to win the contest. Herath, playing his first T20I in two years, bowled a mesmerising spell of 5 for 3 in 3.3 overs.
Player to watch for
Five years ago, when Aravinda de Silva was brought in as the batting coach for Sri Lanka Under-19s, he kept asking the question why Lahiru Thirimanne wasn’t picked. De Silva is a big believer in players with sound technique and Thirimanne this year has shown a glimpse of what he is capable of doing. He scored a hundred during the Asia Cup when opening the innings and made another one in the final against Pakistan. Thirimanne was Player of the Series in the Asia Cup and a bright future awaits the fine talent. He now occupies the No 4 four slot in the batting line-up, a prestigious position previously occupied by Duleep Mendis, de Silva and Mahela Jayawardene.