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In the immediate aftermath of the ravaging civil war of 1996 that had left the country in utter dismay, cricket attempted to soothe some wounds. Led by Arjuna Ranatunga, the batch of 14 individuals rallied around each other to bring to the country its first ever World Cup. That Sri Lanka had failed to go beyond the first round in the previous five editions of the World Cup, made the achievement so much more momentous. The sparkle of the win though wasn’t limited to the material beauty of the glittering trophy. It shone through the most incredible group of cricketers that the country had ever produced. The likes of Sanath Jayasuriya, Aravinda de Silva, Marvan Atapattu, Muttiah Muralitharan, Chaminda Vaas laid down the marker for a rich cricket culture to begin, soon to be carried forward by two of the sports‘ greatest caretakers in Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. So when the island nation celebrated its 50th year of independence in 1998 and commemorated it with the first-ever Nidahas Trophy, there was a sense of independence in the brand of cricket that the team was playing with, too.
Through the turn of the new millennium, this bunch went on to to achieve special things, often saving their best shows for global tournaments. It started with joint honours in the Champions Trophy 2002 (although they were lucky to be saved by rain on back-to-back days of the final). And while they were semifinalists in the 2003 World Cup, they got a step closer in the following two editions held in 2007 and 2011. The silverware seemed firmly within reach again, before they fluffed opportunities in the 2009, 2010 and 2012 editions of the World Twenty20. They made it to the semifinals of the 2013 Champions Trophy too.
Although Sri Lanka remained a classic example of, “You never win the silver, you always lose the gold,” it seemed the stars above conspired to bestow upon them a World title that had been elusive for long, and for that to happen as a parting gift to arguably two of their greatest – Jayawardene and Sangakkara – at the 2014 World T20, was special. The supposed divine intervention sparked an emotional outburst. The trophy should have ideally served as the best starting point for the new generation of cricketers. Yet it didn’t.
Sri Lanka’s limited-overs dexterity is not news, and so is their Test dominance at home, that it is often referred by most as a fortress too tough to breach. Unlike other teams, Sri Lanka’s away worries ran a little deeper. But then came the England tour of 2014 when Sri Lanka became the first visiting team to beat England in all formats (1-0 in Tests, 3-2 in ODIs & 1-0 in the only T20I). Three years before that, they had also won their only Test in South Africa in 2011.
But with the exit of Jayawardene and Sangakkara, started their never-ending quest to deal with transition. Dilshan’s going away deepened the hole further. Although Sri Lanka was quick to identify its heroes in Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal and Rangana Herath, the rest of the unit threw up only spurts of brilliance. There was a memorable win against Pakistan in the UAE in 2017, but these victories were not enough to sweep the other alarming issues under the carpet. There were warnings that Sri Lanka’s foundation was getting shakier by the day but it was only when the top suffered that anyone noticed the cracks that had shown up at the base of it.
With Sri Lanka witnessing their worst year in 2017, losing 40 matches across formats – the most for any team in a calendar year, the hush-hush tones started to grow louder. Opener Dimuth Karunaratne and former fast bowler Chaminda Vaas came out in the open and criticised the country’s ineffective domestic circuit. Former coach Nic Pothas too, cited the same. While Sri Lanka’s premier first-class matches are played over three days, the decision to grant first-class status to 10 more teams, raising it to 24 overall, brought the skill level down dramatically. The former chairman of selectors, Sanath Jayasuriya, was on the same page as well. But the systemic failure had been rearing its head at different levels, and the poor first-class format was merely one of them.
A Champions Trophy first-round exit will always bring along implications and the most jarring of them was the exit of Graham Ford, that came not without its share of drama. Having already served as Sri Lanka’s coach from 2012-14, Ford had turned down a fresh offer in 2015. It was not as if SLC had had rosy memories with its past foreign coaches, having sacked Geoff Marsh and invited a lot of flak from Australian Steve Rixon. One of their own, Chandika Hathurusingha, too wasn’t received kindly in the Sri Lankan circles. Amid all of this, Ford was coaxed into the role by dear friend and confidante Sangakkara, and there were promises made keeping 2019 World Cup in mind. However, bridges were soon burnt with wide ranging developments happening and Ford had to eventually leave. It was hurtful, especially because with yet another foreign coach, this time, one of their very own was let down too.
It is the nature of sport that the greatest will bow out of the ring at some point, but it is also second nature that somebody else will come and take the legacy forward. Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, they have had to contend with multiple issues at different times. While Mathews continues to be more out of the team than in because of all the accumulating injuries, there’s little consistency – the kind of which is warranted – that has come through from others. 2017 was a tight slap on the face of Sri Lankan cricket. They lost a home ODI series to Zimbabwe, who they had not even lost a home ODI to, previously. They failed to win a series at home against Bangladesh, were thrice blanked 0-5 in ODIs and suffered an embarrassing tour sweep at home to India.
However, hope is an eternal emotion. Hathurusingha is now at the helm of the affairs as their new head coach, and the team has just finished with wins in the tri-series in Bangladesh before defeating the hosts in both ODI and T20I series too. The young guns took turns to fire and did collectively too. After long, the mood in the camp looks a little relaxed. But come Tuesday(March 6), Sri Lanka will play the first match of the Nidahas Trophy 2018, against India, a side they had lost to in the final last time. Last time when the tournament was played, it was the celebration of independence, for both the country and its cricket. This time though, it is just the 70th year of independence that takes precedence. Dinesh Chandimal’s boys will need to do better for their cricket to enjoy Nidahas [independence/freedom in Sinhala/Sanskrit].
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