Get the team balance right, ease the pressure, encourage unity and give the players a little freedom–this could be the winning combination for Sri Lanka to become a force to reckon with at the World Cup in June, Chief Cricket Selector Asantha de Mel said this week.
The team have won just six out of 17 matches since their January 2018 ODI series triumph in Bangladesh. These include four straight bilateral series defeats. The latest, in South Africa, saw the Board recalling Head Coach Chandika Hathurusingha and handing over his job temporarily to Fielding Coach Steve Rixon.
“I think we can still be a force to reckon with if we can get our nucleus and team balance right,” de Mel said in an interview with the Sunday Times. “We need to also give these players a little freedom to play without mentally pressurizing them too much. Of course, they must put value on themselves when they are playing for the country. They can’t just go out and throw their wickets the way they have been doing.”
While most other teams have identified a possible squad of players who will travel to England in late May, Sri Lanka are still looking for the best possible combination to fill the available 15 slots, including Captain.
“The other important thing is the unity in the team,” de Mel said. “If this means changing the captaincy to bring the players together, we will do it. Because this is very important. We want to see someone doing what Dimuth (Karunaratne) did for the Test team with the ODI team.”
Angelo Mathews, the former Captain, emerges as front runner to lead the side. With Hathurusingha now relieved of his national team duty, there’s all likelihood of the 31-year-old taking the reins. Mathews didn’t see eye-to-eye with Hathurusingha after he was dumped and publicly ridiculed by the Head Coach following Sri Lanka’s first-round exit from the Asia Cup. He is unlikely to take up the role if Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) keeps Hathurusingha for the World Cup.
“He is someone who has been accepted by everyone in the team,” de Mel said. “So, if he is willing, we will talk to Malinga and make the necessary changes. But we are also looking at Dimuth, who did a remarkable job with the Test team. Whoever it may be, he should first earn a place in the side. We will never appoint the Captain first and then decide the team. We will appoint the team and then decide the Captain out of the 15-man squad.”
Malinga, who led Sri Lanka in nine matches (excluding Saturday’s 5th ODI) so far–including two T20s in New Zealand–have lost all of them and also showed that his rapport with players was not good. This forced selectors to make several experiments in South Africa, like trying out various combinations as openers, changing the bowling unit regularly to see who will fit best in each position, but it didn’t work. Now selectors will use next month’s inter-provincial limited over tournament to decide on the squad.
The four-team tournament will be captained in turns by Angelo Mathews, Dimuth Karunaratne, Lasith Malinga and Upul Tharanga, one of whom will lead Sri Lanka at the World Cup.
Unlike in the 90s, where 250 runs was a winning score in a match, even 400 runs does not guarantee a victory these days. Teams regularly chasing down such mammoth targets with relative ease. De Mel says over 300-340 runs in an ODI is a the norm.
“So, what most teams do today is to score as many runs as possible without losing many wickets in the first 30 overs,” he said. “For instance, they look to get about 160 runs for the loss of 2-3 wickets because, if you have wickets in hand, you can go for big shots in the remaining 20 overs. The average score in the last 20 overs is about 180 now, and it is not difficult to get.”
But do we have the batting power to score 340 runs? This is the question selectors are grappling with. Sri Lanka’s average score, batting first, in ODI cricket has only been 257 runs. This is worse in chasing, with an average score of just 159 runs since January 2018.
“We have two scenarios here,” de Mel continued. “We have to look at whether we are going to play five bowlers and restrict them for 300 or play two half bowlers and give them 330. If we are using five bowlers, then we have only six batsmen. And the question is whether those six could make the kind of scores that most other teams make. The other option is to use two part-time bowlers who can bat and strengthen that side. These are options that we are currently looking at.”
With the average score in World Cup venues expected to be around 320-330 runs, de Mel said Sri Lanka should plan to get at least 320 runs on the board whether they bat first or second. This means they need batsmen who could construct long innings, something that was missing from the side in the recent months. The team statistics show that none of the Sri Lankan batsmen scored a century in 2018, an indication of how poorly they have constructed their innings, as opposed to 15 by India and 13 by England (the two favourites for the world title).
“Otherwise, it will be very difficult for us to win a match,” he explained. “This is why we are looking at the composition of the team to hit that target of 320-330 runs. We have the talent but what these guys do is to throw their wickets away after getting the start. Have you seen Virat Kholi playing the reverse sweep or the Dilscoop? No. All shots he plays are along the ground, so the risk percentage is very less. So I want the players to take responsibility and adjust to the situation rather than going after every ball they get.”
The selectors are aware of the challenges ahead, particularly in finalizing the 15-man squad for the World Cup. The deadline is on April 23.
“For instance, if we are to play three main bowlers, who could be the three bowlers who can take wickets?” de Mel asked. We need two guys to bowl at the death and you need bowlers who can come, contain runs and take few wickets in the middle overs. We have Malinga, an expert in death overs, but who will be his partner? We looked at Vishwa Fernando and Kasun Rajitha. Although they bowled well in Test matches, they don’t have that experience in limited-over format. We are trying Isuru Udana. While he doesn’t have a lot of pace, he has that variation and a lot of experience in T20 cricket. Even in the last game, he bowled well.”
“The next question is, who will be the third bowler?” he said. “Whether Suranga Lamkal can bowl that five overs upfront…but we are not sure whether he is the best finisher. From what we have gathered, he has given a lot of runs towards the end. So, we included him in the T20 team to see how he is going to bowl. The other is Nuwan Pradeep but he often breaks down..”
While disjointed thinking on selection and strategy compounded Sri Lanka’s problem during the last four years, issues have been complicated by a number of injuries to key players.
Angelo Mathews and Kusal Janith Perera have spent more time in rehabilitation than playing cricket and fast bowlers have often broken down on tours. Nuwan Pradeep, Lahiru Kumara and Dushmantha Chameera, who were injured during the New Zealand and Australia series, are likely to miss the World Cup.
“We need to understand that our cupboard is bare,” the Chief Selector admitted. “We don’t have very many options. Even for a place of an all-rounder, in lieu of Thisara Perera, the other all-rounders available are Dasun Shanaka and Chamikara Karunaratne.”
Karunaratne, according to de Mel, is a three dimensional player. He can score a quickfire hundred batting lower down the order and can bowl. He is also very fit. “So, if we can’t find the third strike bowler, we might have to play a guy like Karunaratne to compensate,” he said.
Another worry is the absence of a top spinner. Akila Dananjaya has returned to the side after remodeling his bowling action. But he seems to have lost his sting. “We watched him in South Africa and he is not getting the same impact as before,” de Mel observed. “He is not spinning the off-spin and has become too predictable. We wanted him to come in the middle overs and take at least two wickets for 50 runs but not nothing for 50. So, we are trying to see whether Dananjaya de Silva can do the same because he brings the batting dimension. Even if he bats at number 8 or 9, even if he give 5-10 extra runs with the ball, he can catch up with his batting. These are the combinations that we are trying to see.”
Upul Tharanga, the most senior among Sri Lankan batters with 15 hundreds, had a poor run in South Africa managing just 13 runs (9 and 4) in the two games he played. But de Mel counts on Tharanga’s experience for the world tournament.
“Tharanga has made 15 hundreds and 35 half centuries, ” he said. “He has the experience to bat long innings. If you take Avishka Fernando, he has played just three matches. Oshada Fernando has played three. Kusal Mendis has played only 38 matches. So our batting has not got the experience that players in other teams have. If we can get Mathews in (He has scored 2 hundreds but has 35 half centuries in 195 matches) who has that experience, we can get Mathews and Tharanga to blend with our youth.”
The Chief Selector believes that, had Sri Lanka made the necessary plans earlier, we would not be in this current predicament. “We need a strong backup team,” he said. “I have been telling the Board to have a backup team so we can shadow these players in the national team and, when required, bring them into the national side. These are the kind of investments the Board should have made some years back.”
De Mel has held the same post several times in the past but says his job is more challenging today given the circumstances. In fact. they had to request the Sports Minister to remove Hathurusingha from team selection, a duty he enjoyed since landing the job during the Australian series.
“The problem is everyone wants to do our job,” de Mel commented. “Their grasp of selection is just picking a group of players but they don’t understand what goes behind the scene. The efforts we put into getting the right team. The amount of data we used. The Head Coach thinks we are against him, but we are not. But if we give in to his type of thinking, we would never have played Oshada. We would have never played Avishka, Kamindu Mendis, Lasith Ambuldeniya or Vishwa Fernando.”
“Kusal Janith would have never played Test cricket,” he continued. “When we sent Kusal Janith to Australia, the Coach said he is not in his plans and not to send him. He didn’t even let him bat in the nets. We have to force him to play in the nets. We wanted him to play because we knew he could cut and pull the ball in those seaming and bouncy wickets. Had he not been pressed, do you think he would have played? He got 150 odd runs in a historic match.”
De Mel said Coach Hathurusingha wanted Dilruwan (Perera) instead of Ambuldeniya for the South African series but they decided to send the youngster considering his first class performance (over 100 wickets in 24 matches) and given his ability to turn the ball.
“Are we to play a man who doesn’t spin the ball, injured and 36-years-old and keep this young man in the wilderness?” he asked. “So we took the bull by the horns. Had we lost the match and this guy didn’t take wickets, the blame would have come on us. That’s fine. We are not there to take any glory. Let the players get the credit when they win and when they lose let them put the blame on us. That’s fine. But, as Selectors, we have a responsibility. So what I told my co-Selectors is let’s be fair by every player.’
Asked what the long term plan is for the team, he said they can’t make long term plans when they did not know what their future entailed.
“I might not be here tomorrow,” he said. “So how can we make a long term plan? Right now, our aim is to field the best team for the World Cup and nothing beyond that. But the downside is Sri Lanka is in this present crisis because it never had a long-term policy and planning.”
“If you look at other countries, the most important thing in cricket is team selection. If you don’t select properly, you will never win. The selection is not all about picking the XI but much more than what’s on surface, like getting the right people for the right job, getting the correct fielding coach, the trainers, the physios. All that comes under us.”
The Selectors have a three year term in most other countries, so that they can have a long-term plan. In Sri Lanka, Selectors are appointed for an year and even that term is not guaranteed.
De Mel said the Selectors have proposed several far-reaching changes like the change of ball from Kookaburra to Duke, the change of pitches with more support for fast bowlers and a quality domestic tournament like the proposed Super Provincial tournament where the cream of country’s top cricketers play to lift the standard. “We can only make recommendations. It’s up to the board to implement them,” he asserted.
Commenting on the Selectors’ decision to sack Dinesh Chandimal as Skipper, de Mel said it was a very tough call but one that they had to make to build the team.
“When I was asked to take over in 2012, I said I need to sack the Captain because there were lots of issues within the team,” he recounted. “We had to remove TM Dilshan. We had to make that call, however tough it was. So it was a similar situation this time around, there were lots of problem in the team. They were not gelling. What Dimuth did was to get all the players together. He made the dressing room environment a very comfortable one. This caused wonders.”
De Mel also said the Selectors play a much bigger role than the Coach, whose role is that of a motivator.
“Can Ravi Shastri tell Virat Kholi how to bat?” he asked. “He can’t. The Coach’s job is a motivating job. The Selectors’ job is to select the correct players. When I was there in 2012, Mahela Jayawardene and Graeme Ford told me that Kusal Janith and Dimuth Karunaratne are two good players and to have a look. I sent them to South Africa with the A team and the guys came good. I gave them a chance because I felt Mahela and Coach had a good eye. Same with Akila Dananjaya. We hadn’t seen him. Mahela said he was bowling well in the nets and we put him into the World Cup final without even playing a single match. Same with Oshada. He has not played for Sri Lanka U-19s or the A team but we got him to play Test cricket. Same with Malinga. I remember watching him in the nets. We selected him from the nets and sent him straight to Australia and he got four wickets at Brisbane. They could not play him because he was bowling at 150Kmph and square arm. Our job is not only to look at statistics but to see how these players are performing. So it’s an important job but, unfortunately, there is not much emphasis on selection here.”