Final preview: Sri Lanka

April 2, 2011

From 1975 to 1992, Sri Lanka were pretty much a peripheral country in World Cricket and in World Cups. Then 1996 happened. Arjuna Ranatunga was the general, Aravinda de Silva the destroyer-in-chief and Sanath Jayasuriya the shock-and-awe weapon. Since then they sank in 1999, did better in 2003 and have now reached two consecutive finals – 2007 and 2011. It is worth noting that in the last five World Cups, they have reached the most number of finals after Australia.

The World Cup so far

Their campaign in 2011 has been a fairly smooth one. In fact, it has been so smooth that they could well go in under-cooked in the final. Their group had two dangerous teams alongside themselves: Australia and Pakistan. Their match against Australia was fascinatingly poised, with neither side dominant, when the rains came down. Against Pakistan, they were without a resting Lasith Malinga, and ended up losing.

It is not Sri Lanka’s fault that their quarter-final and semi-final opponents were – for various reasons – not as tough a match as their group rivals. England were on their last legs after an exhausting away schedule and an emotionally draining group stage in which they contrived to play six straight close finishes out of six. Thus what could have been a real tussle turned into a virtual walk-over, with the bowlers restricting England and the batsmen then destroying them.

While New Zealand did well to reach the semi-final, there was always going to be only one favourite in that match, and Sri Lanka proved far too formidable.

Team Analysis

Sri Lanka’s strengths are their top order and their bowling spearheads. Dilshan, Tharanga and Sangakkara have all been in terrific form during the World Cup and while Mahela Jayawardene could have done with more runs, there is no questioning his class or pedigree. The problem starts after Mahela. Sri Lanka have lost Angelo Mathews to injury and that is a devastating blow to an already suspect middle order. The most viable replacement appears to be Thissara Perera, who is not the sort to give the opposition sleepless nights. The one thing he has going for him though, is that in the innumerable times that India and Sri Lanka have played each other in the past 2 years, he has had impressive stats against India. Neither of Kapugedera, Chamara Silva or Samaraweera have been in the kind of form a World Cup finalists would want. And at least two of them are certain to figure in the starting eleven.

Where Sri Lanka can cover for their batting weakness is in the bowling. Lasith Malinga seemingly only needs to flick a switch to bowl a reverse swinging yorker that no batsman in the world can survive. Malinga has been abslotely devastating for tail-enders, and impossible to score off when he has been brought back during batting power-plays. If Perera plays, he could share the new ball with Malinga, leaving Sri Lanka free to pick three spinners. With Randiv also now part of the squad, it makes for an interesting selection. Muralitharan is injured, but unless he is tied down by heavy metal chains, there is probably no force on earth that will stop the old warrior from taking the field. Ajantha Mendis may not have bagged a bunch of wickets, but his economy rate during the tournament has been an eye-popping 3.14 – easily the best by a Sri Lankan. The final slot will thus be between Herath, Randiv, and Kulasekara if Sri Lanka go in with only two spinners.

Best Batsmen and Bowler Performances

Dilshan has scored 467 runs in the tournament, and is the current table topper, though Sachin Tendulkar (464) is breathing down his neck. Sangakkara has 417 runs, and he’s been dismissed only 4 times off the 7 he has batted, giving him a 100-plus batting average. Both batsmen have strike-rates in the 85-95 range.

He may be on his last legs as an international cricketer, but Muralitharan is still comfortably the leading wicket-taker for Sri Lanka with 15 to his name. The only other Lankan with more than 10 wickets is Malinga with 11.

Final verdict:

As captain Sangakkara said, India may be the favourites going into the final, but Sri Lanka are no under-dogs. That pretty much sums up the situation for them. Sri Lanka’s tactics will have to revolve around the top four getting big runs and Malinga and Murali winking out 3-4 of the Indian batsmen cheaply, and throttling the rest. They are eminently capable of both, and will have the added motivation of giving Murali a grand farewell.

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