1996 was when world cricket truly woke up to Sri Lanka. The 66/1 underdogs triumphed in spectacular fashion, changing the complexion of limited-overs cricket forever. Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana hit everything out of sight. Roshan Mahanama and Aravinda De Silva anchored the middle order and the spinners led by Muttiah Muralitharan did the rest to near-perfection. There was this sudden explosion witnessed in ODI batting henceforth, chasing became an absolute art and the word upset was ever dearer to the masses. No one but Arjuna Ranatunga deserved to lift that gold-crusted trophy in Lahore, they said.
The one time 66/1 underdogs triumphed before this was in 1983 when Kapil Dev led India to an even more astonishing win over the West Indies at Lord’s. Winning a World Cup is no mean feat, and certainly not comparable to watching and writing from a distance, but one dare say that Ranatunga’s men found their tactics working only because the tournament was held in the sub-continent. That is the legacy they left behind. Think up any tournament to be staged in this part of the world – big or small – and if they are participating, then Sri Lanka will be termed contenders. And serious ones at that - make them 9/2 second favourites for this event.
This is the tag with which they will enter the upcoming tournament, buoyed by this no small measure of playing in their own backyard. Let one get the obvious out of the way before moving ahead – it is not wrong to accrue home advantage. If it were being held in England or Australia, wouldn’t the hosts be favourites? Or more pertinently, would the sub-continental teams openly be labelled so? Now, playing hosts will have two facets for the Lankans in the coming months. And for that we need to look at the 2002 and 2006 Champions Trophy, held in Sri Lanka and India respectively.
In 2002, the highlighted match would be the semi-final when they took on Australia. It was a rank turner at the Premadasa Stadium in Colombo and they won comfortably, chasing only 163. In 2006, though they qualified top from their league group, the Lankans lost to South Africa and Pakistan, not making the semi-finals. On the more neutralised wickets in India, their margin of superiority reduces just a wee-bit. The inevitable question here being what’s the point here? Sri Lanka will be playing their important matches against Australia and Pakistan at home, while they will face New Zealand in Mumbai.
Recovery in the league stage is possible but it’s the knock-outs that matter most herein. As per the scheduling and ICC ODI rankings, unless Lanka meet India in either the quarter-final or the semi-final, they will be playing at home and can arrange for ‘suitable’ pitches.
It is not to say that they can’t beat India in India. Just that on tempered wickets, against a hostile crowd, the job becomes a bit more onerous. The crux of the matter here is that their road to the final becomes way clearer if they can just avoid facing India until April 2. And these are the fifteen names to lay that particular path: Kumar Sangakkara (captain), Mahela Jayawardene (vice-captain), Upul Tharanga, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Thilan Samaraweera, Chamara Silva, Chamara Kapugedara, Angelo Mathews, Tissara Perera, Nuwan Kulasekara, Lasith Malinga, Dilhara Fernando, Muttiah Muralitharan, Ajantha Mendis and Rangana Herath.
One look at the squad and you remember the Delhi Daredevils team for the last three IPL seasons – top heavy and lightweight in the middle. In Sangakkara, Jayawardene, Dilshan and Samaraweera, the co-hosts have it in them to win most of the matches or if not that, make more than an early impression. Only if these four are knocked over cheaply – and that is not going to happen very often – the opposition can think about having a foot in the door. And that part brings us to their most enigmatic player at the moment, Angelo Mathews.
His rise in the last couple of seasons has been phenomenal, that is a line you would have read on umpteen occasions. Instead, just recall his heroics in that ODI at Melbourne against Australia this past season. It was an innings of power and stability, inspiring a tail-ender to stay long enough with him and fight back from an improbable position. And fight they did, Mathews and Lasith Malinga, knocking over the shocked Aussies. Perhaps that is where their Ashes downfall began but that is a story for another day. Here and now, it underlines the role this young star can play in this tournament. If 1996 was the coming of Jayasuriya, couldn’t 2011 be his?
The discernable doubt to the answer comes not because of his bowling prowess, which is more than just a plus point, but that of his team’s attack as a whole. The last time Muralitharan played a World Cup in the sub-continent, he was just beginning on his legendary journey. Today, he has more or less finished it and that R Ashwin was the first choice spinner ahead of him for the Chennai Super Kings speaks largely of this. Also gone is the guile of Chaminda Vaas, who would have been unplayable in these conditions, and you wonder whether Malinga, Fernando, Kulasekara and company can even begin to fill his shoes collectively. It is a thought that would be keeping the minds of the Lankan team management occupied as well!
© Cricket World 2011