An Asian team could still come out on top!

Posted: April 2, 2007 in chamara silva, chaminda vaas, dilshan, jayasuriya, jayawardene, lara, lasith malinga, murali, russell arnold, sangakara, sri lanka, tom moody, world cup

After the early exits of India and Pakistan from the cricket World Cup, the chances of an Asian team emerging victorious, reduced. There were still two teams from Asia, left in the running, viz. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. In reality, while Bangladesh has done creditably to make it to the Super Eight stage, no one is going to give it any chance for becoming the ultimate winners here. They can cause a little flutter here and there, but surely they do not have a chance to go all the way.

That left Sri Lanka. The one team from Asia, with a half chance of going all the way. At the outset, when the World Cup started, most critics gave Sri Lanka an outside chance to make it to the semi finals stage. That was about it.

Having seen them play in the recent matches, I have a much much higher respect for the team, and I just feel that their quiet, no-nonsense, low profile approach, might actually see them going far, and perhaps all the way too.

Let me ennumerate the reasons I feel thus:
1. Sri Lanka had a dream run in ODIs last year, where they won a very high percentage of their games, soon after Jayawardene took over as captain, in absence of Atapatu. Amongst their big series wins was the 5-0 washout of England in England. Now whatever you think of the English team, beating them 5-0 in England is no mean achievement. And in all of those victories, Sri Lanka looked eminently confident to take the game, in spite of whatever resistance England was putting up, each time.

2. Only in recent past, just before the World Cup, doubts were raised about Sri Lanka’s abilities, as they came to India and lost. What we did not realize is that the Sri Lanka team very purposely rested their star bowlers, Vaas and Muralitharan, for this India trip, coming so close before the World Cup, as it did. Only India and West Indies played their best teams, and took the risks of injuries and fatigue so close before the WC! So Sri Lanka’s loss in India before the WC may be taken with a pinch of salt, on account of their depleted bowling strength.

3. Attitude wise, Sri Lanka is SO different from India and Pakistan. Its surprising that a subcontinental team has such a different style, compared to the other 2 big boys in the area. At the outset, they seem to have far less politicization about their cricket, compared to India and Pakistan. They seem to focus on cricket first and foremost, and other factors follow in priority. The egos of cricketers seem to be far lower. They carry no airs about them. Except for Ranatunga and Murali who have been somewhat vocal about their feelings against Australia, especially, you scarcely hear a word of controversy from their players. And even with regards to Murali, it was a clear case of self-defense. The Aussie press and public really harried him down. And as far as Ranatunga goes, I do not know of a more wily cricketer, one who is extremely proud of his country and the team, and who will play whatever card is necessary to get victory. It was his cunning and Aravinda’s dash that made them World Cup winners, few years back. So his words are always having a strategy behind them, I am pretty sure.
In other respects, the Sri Lanka team, from Murali and Jayasuriya down to all the newcomers and youngsters, seem to be prepared to listen to their coach and work hard. Murali and Jayasuriya are clear revelations as fielders, at this World Cup. That shows the kind of commitment and respect to the coaches, that they show. Which is of course, how it should be. Except that their more famous sub-continental cousins don’t seem to think so!

4. All through this World Cup, we have seen the Sri Lanka team showing clearly, how each of the players knows his role. About how they seem to be playing to a common goal for the team, and not for individual glory. Players like Dilshan and Chamara Silva are embodiments of average players, knowing their clear tasks, and doing just that, without fanfare. When the team loses early wickets, it is for them to curb risky shots, take quick singles, don’t go crazy with airy shots, stay till 40th-42nd overs, and then start increasing the pace. They have had to do this on more than one occasion, and they did well. So also did Russell Arnold. A veritable batsman in his own right, but coming at number 7. Vaas has his work cut out. Strangle the batsmen early, not allowing them to make runs, and pick up a couple of wickets. He does that to a tee. Malinga has to fire early and see if he can hustle out a batsman early on. If not, he comes back with reverse swing and his unique action, to pick up wickets in a second spell. And so on. Each person knows their role. And they do it just fine.

5. Be it the batting order or the bowling order, there is a basic strategy which is followed, without going into too many random experiments. Like how India did, and like how West Indies was forced to attempt yesterday in their game against Sri Lanka. The Sri Lanka team follows a set batting order, the team is more or less constant (which means, ex-captain, Atapatu cools his heels in the dressing room, never mind that; could we have done that to Ganguly?!). Yes, one may argue, that if it does not work, then you think of making changes. Yes, true. But when a certain strategy has been finalized well in advance, and players have worked at it for long, that stable strategy has been fine tuned and works. And which then, as a consequence, does not demand constant tweaking! Its like a positive spiral.

6. I was most impressed by Sangakara’s interview with Michael Holding, after they beat West Indies yesterday. First of all, I think Sangakara is one of the most intelligent crickets on the cirtuit today. And my opinion is not based on his interview of yesterday (although the opinion only got further strengthened) but on the basis of all the articles of his that I have read. While articles of cricketers could well be ghost written by others, I do feel that the gist of the thought process has to be that of the cricketer, and considering that, if you read Sangakara’s writings, you realise that he ia a sharp cricketing brain. When he spoke to Holding yesterday, after one of the biggest wins in World Cup (at least against a non-minnow team), there was absolutely no going overboard. There was a clear attitude that came out like ‘a task needed to be done, which we did, and also that we have a few more games to win, and we are focusing on that’. I suspect that is also the team’s attitude. In fact, as they picked up wickets, the bowlers were not jumping up and down, like they had scaled Mount Everest. There was some celebration, but beyond that, it appeared like ‘this is what I am supposed to do, and I am doing just that, so what’s the big deal here’! Even as Dilshan hammered a six off the last ball, and took the total beyond 300, there was not even a smile on his face, as he walked back to the pavilion with his teammate. His face seemed to show something like ‘so okay, we have got 300+ now, and we have to go back to the field and make sure that we get them out in less than this score’. No sense of a big time achievement. Similarly, Jayasuriya actually seemed to feel bad that he got out when he did, when there was a task still to be done. Or in fact, when Vaas got Bravo with a beauty, you could be mistaken to believe that Vaas was on his way to a funeral. He had no emotions of joy or celebration on his face. Basically what I am seeing is that they are work oriented, and they are fully prepared to delay the gratification till the end result is achieved.

7. Another incident I remember, was a press conference addressed by Jayawardene, around the time when they lost in India, before the World Cup, and when he himself was going through a rough patch in terms of form. He stated in a very matter of fact manner, and very sincerely too, that ‘only the best team needs to be picked for the World Cup; I have not been in good form, and if the selectors think that someone else will be a better option, they must drop me, if they feel someone else will make a better captain, they must replace me, but the most important task is for us to put our best foot forward for the world cup’. It was a genuine and sincere comment, and not just ‘drama’. I was very impressed. This kind of selfless spirit is seen on the ground too. With a slight exception of Murali (and he being really so special, can be excused on this ground), no one else seems to show even the slightest hint of ego, or selfishness. From Vaas to Jayasuriya to Sangakara, all of them are prepared to be playing for the team, whatever it takes. Likewise, Atapatu sitting in the pavilion.

8. Finally in summary, their actual strengths are worth recalling. Jayasuriya at the top, is amongst the best in the world, and is in good nick too. Thiranga has also done well in recent months, and comes with confidence. He needs to get a good score and he will be on his way. With Jayawardene, Sangakara both very effective and talented, to follow, and then the so called bit players who are in great form, Chamara Silva, Dilsha and Arnold, the Sri Lanka batting appears to be in good shape. Also they have all kinds of batsmen. Players who can stay at the wicket, milks singles and twos and who can also blast out and hit big winners. Players like Sangakara, Arnold, Silva and Dilshan fall in this dual role capability. Jayawardene is a little patient, like an Atapatu and Jayasuriya is a blaster, much needed at the top. There are left and right handers, so in short, there is great balance in batting.
Coming to the bowling, Vaas leads the way. For all the noise that we make about the more high profile pacers on display, like McGrath, Pollock, Bond, for my money, I think Vaas is the best pace bowler at the World Cup, at this time. He does not need any warming up – he is on the dot, from ball 1. He has great variety, without the risk of being expensive. He has a phenomenal economy rate, and is always good to pick up wickets. The balls that he got DeVillers and Bravo with, against South Africa and West Indies respectively, were absolute beauties. A true champion. As supporting case in the pace battery, Malinga, Fernando and Maharoof are able allies. Malinga is a little ahead of the pack, as he seems to be in good form right now. But otherwise, all three of them are not world beaters, but are extremely effective. I think the coaching has really helped them to make them come out looking far better than their talents. And in spin, there is range. Of course, Jayasuriya and Murali and the regulars. Murali undoubtedly is the best spinner on display at the World Cup (in that sense, Sri Lanka have the best paceman Vaas and the best spinner, Murali, in their teams; quite an enviable situation). Jayasuriya has worked so well on his bowling, that he could even command his place in the side, for his bowling alone. He ensures that runs are kept under control and can pick up wickets every once in a while. And for the supporting case, bowlers like Dilshan and Arnold do a good job. The batting team cannot think of running away merrily, on the ‘fifth’ bowler’s expense. Again, you will see that the bowling options are very varied, and this variety is a strength. Sri Lanka’s fielding is looking comparable to the South African and Australian varieties. Sangakara is a very smart wicketkeeper. His standing close to the wickets to Vaas, accounted for Lara yesterday. He also got another stumping. The outfield and the catching talents are also very good, and here again, the coaching staff have done wonders for the team. I would give a lot of credit to Tom Moody, the coach, in achieving this transformation for Sri Lanka. Of course, he may not be a lot different from Greg Chappell, but he has wards who listen to him, unlike what Chappell has!

With all this going for them, and with very level heads that the Sri Lankans have, I think they are in an excellent position to go all the way. While they lost a close match to another contender, South Africa, we will see how they do against Australia and New Zealand. Even if they don’t do so well in the Super Eight, as long as they get to the semi-finals, I think they will raise their game to a different level, and take it all, and become the champions!

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Comments
  1. Ranjith Wijewardene says:

    Fantastic Article! A Must Read, this is one of the best articles I have read on cricket… Brilliant! You hit the nail on the head. If only the appropriate people would listen and take your words to heart.

  2. SPM says:

    Ranjith:
    Thank you for the kind words.
    Now that India is out, I am able to view the picture in a more non-partisan way! Hence this piece..

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