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Blossoming again

by Charlie Austin

Inflation may be spiralling upwards, the Sri Lankan rupee might be plunging in value, war clouds are clinging to the horizon, but at least there is something to cheer as the New Year dawns: the Sri Lankan cricket team’s return to good health. After an inconsistent 2005, the senior team has rebounded with fresh purpose and growing confidence. It has not been an unblemished year by any means, but the prospects for the future are looking far brighter than they did 12 months ago.

In terms of bare statistics, it was Sri Lanka’s busiest ever year in terms of international commitments: 36 ODIs, 11 Tests and three Twenty20 slogfests. The win ratio for the one-day team was a decent 56%, while in Tests their record was second only to Australia with six victories and just three defeats in 11 matches. However, the real bonus is the fighting spirit shown in tough situations, the flair with which the side has played and the flourishing of young talent.

It all started where it ended: in New Zealand. It was not an auspicious start either, as Sri Lanka limped into the VB Series with Australia and South Africa after a 4-1 defeat. The team bounced back from their opening defeat against Australia in Melbourne with back-to-back victories at Brisbane and Sydney.

At the centre of this turnaround was Sanath Jayasuriya, whose woeful Test record during the year – 211 runs at 17.58 with just one fifty in 12 innings – was offset by his ODI form: 1153 runs at 48.04, his best ever year. There were five centuries in all, including an astonishing 152 in 99 balls at Headingley.

The other members of Sri Lanka’s top four – Upul Tharanga (1062 runs at 44.25), Kumar Sangakkara (1333 runs at 44.43) and Mahela Jayawardene (1185 runs at 40.86) – were also prolific and this solidity and consistency at the top of the order was the highlight of the ODI team.

And the first signs of this emerged during that hard-fought VB Series campaign. Australia eventually won but Sri Lanka pushed them hard in the three-match finals, shocking the hosts with victory in the first game.

However, more inconsistency followed against Bangladesh, who stole a maiden victory, and Pakistan, who clinched a home ODI series 2-0 and the Test series 1-0. Behind the scenes, though, important changes were slowly taking place, including the acceptance of a new training culture, the fast development of playing and mental skills, improved fitness and, importantly, a shake-up of the team’s leadership following the deterioration of Marvan Atapattu’s chronic back condition.

While there were rumours that Atapattu would be retiring from Test cricket after the England tour, he had been expected to lead the team until the World Cup. But Atapattu first pulled out of the Bangladesh tour and then realised he needed surgery after a failed comeback bid for the Pakistan tour. There was much debate over who his successor would be, with Sangakkara, Jayasuriya and Chaminda Vaas all potential interim options, but the selectors eventually plumped for Jayawardene, the man they’d sacked as vice-captain just three months before.

It proved to be one of the most significant events of the year for two reasons: It galvanised Jayawardene as a top-order batsman, lifting his performances in both forms of the game to a higher plane, and helped usher in a more aggressive approach. After six years of steady, reactive, often defensive leadership since the departure of Arjuna Ranatunga, Jayawardene and Moody opened the door to a more attacking brand of cricket.

The impact of Jayawardene was more overt – innovative field placements, bold selections, naked emotion on the field – but it also became increasingly clear that Moody was providing strong leadership with assistance from a top-class management team. Moody’s success has been built upon fundamental management basics: hard work, crystal-clear communication, the introduction of strong structures, the hiring of quality support staff and the successful adoption of a new team culture that fights against complacency.

The fruits of their dual impact first became evident during Sri Lanka’s tour of England. On paper, without Atapattu and Jayasuriya (before he reversed his decision to retire from Test cricket) as openers, Sri Lanka were ill-equipped to deal with Englandpace attack on early-summer pitches. Their inexperience, especially in the batting department, left them clear underdogs. The pre-series practice matches did nothing to dispel this theory either and their prospects at Lord’s looked bleak.

It looked even bleaker two-and-a-half days into the game as England enforced the follow-on with Sri Lanka still 359 runs in arrears. Remarkably, though, Sri Lanka escaped. Not due to wet weather, as one might have assumed, but because of one the most spirited second-innings rearguards in the game’s history. Jayawardene was the star, following his first-innings 61 with a six-hour 119, but not the solo performer. No less than six other players passed fifty, first frustrating and then ridiculing a complacent English attack. By batting 199 overs for their 537 for 9, the team’s collective self-belief soared.

The rest of the year all followed from their defiance at Lord’s. The second Test at Edgbaston was lost but Sri Lanka remained in the contest until the final day. Then at Trent Bridge, on a pitch tailored for his wiles, Muttiah Muralitharan produced his most memorable performance of the year. England were set a 325-run target after more resilience from Sri Lanka’s tail and Muralitharan unleashed a mesmerizing spell, slowly but surely picking his way through the top, middle and lower order. He claimed the first seven wickets to fall and finished with 8 for 70, as Sri Lanka won by 134 runs.

Sri Lankan Test victories outside of Asia are such a rare thing that it was rightly considered a brilliant achievement to level the three-match series 1-1. But their 5-0 whitewash in the five-match ODI series that followed was perhaps an even greater achievement. Again, they started as underdogs, expected to wilt in the conditions. Far from wilting, they exploded, ruthlessly attacking the weaklinks in England’s bowling attack with a ferocity that allowed them to build-up an unstoppable momentum.

It all started in the lead-up to the series when the team management, senior players and the chairman of selectors agreed that the time had come for a change. There was concern that Sri Lanka’s one-day cricket had become increasingly predictable and one-dimensional. The most common approach was to sit back and wait for their opponents to slip up, a reactive style that brought mixed success. Now it was agreed that Sri Lanka must be more flexible and aggressive. Crucially, they returned to their attacking roots, backing their natural flair to make maximum use of PowerPlays.

This new strategy worked with calculated risk-taking reaping huge dividends. Those risks included a free licence to attack for the top three – Jayasuriya, Tharanga and Jayawardene, who was pushed up from the middle order. The bowling also developed with Lasith Malinga, previously considered a Test specialist, drafted into a five-man attack. It added an extra dimension to the team, especially at the tailend of the innings when his yorkers were lethal.

Sri Lanka’s confidence sky-rocketed after the England tour and they carried this into their two-Test series against South Africa, winning both matches. The first was a glorious run-fest at the Sinhalese Sports Club with Jayawardene scoring 375 and sharing a world record stand of 624, the highest-ever partnership in Test and first-class cricket. In the second Test Sri Lanka, marshalled again by Jayawardene who score a superb 123, chased a record 352 for victory. The batsman claimed most of the headlines but Muralitharan (who claimed 90 wickets in 11 Test matches during the year) was also continuing to play a hugely influential role as he equalled his own world record for four consecutive ten-wicket hauls.

The return of terrorism to Colombo ruined the tri-series with South Africa and India that was to follow and the team’s next assignment was the Champions Trophy, a tournament they had to pre-qualify for. However, despite playing some quality cricket, they failed to qualify for the semi-finals after surprise defeats to Pakistan and South Africa.

The New Zealand tour provided a good opportunity to pick up the pieces and see just how far the team had improved during the year. The first Test proved a bitter disappointment as only Sangakkara – playing now as only a specialist batsman in Test cricket – provided substantial resistance. However, like they did in England, there were able to show great character with a series-levelling win in Wellington, the highlight of which was the Aravinda-like batting of Chamara Silva, who followed a pair on debut with 61 and 152 not out at the Basin Reserve that propelled Sri Lanka into a winning position.

Silva, now 27, was the discovery of the year, a player who had languished in the wilderness for too long after making his one-day international debut way back in 1999. Spotted by Moody, who had by now developed a decent working relationship with Ashantha de Mel’s selection committee, he looks a fine prospect. The other youngsters to really shine were Upul Tharanga (five ODI hundreds in the year) and Malinga, who added an extra yard of pace, greater control and variation to his unique armoury.

New man on the block

Undoubtedly Chamara Silva. A real Christmas present for Sri Lanka. Showed no signs of nerves against New Zealand at the end of the year, refusing to change his naturally aggressive approach after a pair in the first Test. Helped Sangakkara rebuild the first innings in Wellington and then took centre stage in the second innings with a magnificent 152. Sri Lanka’s one major area of concern in the year was the inconsistency of the middle order and Silva looks like a perfect solution.

Fading star

Thilan Samaraweera, a regular in the Test team in 2004 and 2005, drifted out of the Test squad and back into the A team following a disappointing England tour. Now aged 29, his future is uncertain following the emergence of Chamara Silva and Chamara Kapugedera. He still has a decent Test average after 39 games, but the large disparity between his home and away record (he averages 56 at home and 26 overseas) counted against him.

High point

The Lord’s rearguard was the turning point but the final match of the ODI series against England was a special day. Having set a stiff 322 run target, England finally thought their one-day drought was over. But Jayasuriya and Tharanga responded with a glorious opening partnership, scoring 286 in just 31.5 overs. Jayasuriya flayed 152 from 99 balls and Tharanga109 from 104. Sri Lanka sealed an historic 5-0 whitewash with an incredible 12.3 overs to spare.

Low point

Sri Lanka’s 78 run defeat to South Africa in the Champions Trophy. Sri Lanka were one of the tournament favourites and had been expected to qualify for the semi-finals based on their recent form. But under lights in Ahmedabad their top order was blown away by high quality fast bowling from Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and Andrew Nel.

What does 2007 hold?

Continued success. With a good blend of youth and experience, a well-balanced team, a strong management team and a harmonious dressing room, Sri Lanka should be one of the main challengers in the World Cup. The biggest concern will be whether they will be able to retain the services of Tom Moody who is likely to be on the shopping list of several richer nations immediately after the World Cup.

-The Island Sports

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January 2, 2007 - Posted by | South Asia, Sports, Sports News & Opinion, World News

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