“We weren’t given a chance of getting anywhere” captain Mahela Jayawardene said as the Sri Lankan team departed Australia, heads held high after a gruelling tri-series which culminated in a 15-run loss in the best of three finals. Despite the loss, Sri Lanka arguably played the best cricket during the tri-series, where the Indians were left disappointed at their early exit and the Australians triumphed after being pushed all the way by a newly-rediscovered defiance and spirit within the Lions’ ranks.
The tournament began for Sri Lanka with defeat to the old nemesis India, it was a performance that felt like nothing had changed on the field after the tour of South Africa, despite off-field changes; both coach and captain were once-again replaced in the revolving-door of the Sri Lankan cricket hierarchy. However, it wasn’t long between the new partnership of Graham Ford and Mahela Jayawardene began to show promise. A spirited display in Perth resulted in a narrow loss to Australia by just 5 runs, Angelo Mathews providing a trademark never-say-die innings that almost rescued the failings of the top-order. The emergence of Thisara Perera and re-emergence of Farveez Maharoof as fast-bowling all rounders with the ability to bat explosively down the order gave the side a balance that was necessary in relatively fast and bouncy Australian conditions. The former helped the Lions register their first points of the tournament in the second match against India, with a skilled overall bowling performance alongside the ever-dependable Nuwan Kulasekera, Rangana Herath and talisman Lasith Malinga, rescuing a tie from the verge of defeat, although with a boundary required off the last ball it was a case for both teams of ‘what could have been.’
The tournament then moved east to Sydney, a ground which Sri Lanka traditionally favour due to the subcontinent-like wicket. February 17th was a special day for me, it was a turning point in the recent past of Sri Lankan cricket but I also got to watch a demolition of the Australian team in Colombo with my Aunt & Uncle from Sydney (fervent Australian fans) on the day of my cousins wedding. Mahela and co. obviously knew what time I had to get to the ceremony because they knocked off the required runs in such a hurry that I was distraction-free for my pre-wedding duties and provided a great start to a very special day! With the balance of the side looking perfect, victory against India and then Australia followed in an impressive manner. The batting line-up looked increasingly more solid as each game passed, Dinesh Chandimal providing yet more evidence that he can be a world-class performer in the crucial No.4 slot.
This string of positive results left Sri Lanka at dizzy table-topping heights, though Australia promptly usurped their position with a victory of India leaving their tournament hopes hanging by a thread, only a thumping win over Sri Lanka could resurrect their hopes. On a quite amazing night in Hobart, Sri Lanka fell victim to a savage attack from Virat Kohli, his stunning innings condemning Sri Lanka to a loss in 36 overs, defending a mammoth 320. This result threatened to derail Sri Lanka’s chance of reaching the finals and undo all the Lions’ impressive work in what seemed a setback to the Mahela Jayawardene revolution (Part II). Victory over Australia at the MCG was now required. The constant support throughout the tournament by vociferous fans reached a peak in Melbourne, where the atmosphere was more akin to the Premadasa, and in a do-or-die match Sri Lanka held their nerve defending a meagre 238, despite injuries to 2 in-form fast bowlers (the golden arm of Lahiru Thirimanne removed Mike Hussey to change the game, before Lasith Malinga bounced back from his annihilation in Hobart to deliver a superb spell to see Sri Lanka home). The passion and resolve shown was clearly the result of a re-united team, focused purely on the task at hand, despite numerous distractions behind the scenes. It felt like ‘the Mahela Jayawardene effect.’
Australia edged the first of the best-of-three finals, despite the pyrotechnics of the diminutive yet huge-hearted Nuwan Kulasekera. Almost snatching victory from the jaws of defeat began to seem like a common theme, it clearly rattled the Australians as they could never seem to put a match to bed. The momentum gained from the end of this epic clearly continued into final No.2, where a pedestrian Australia couldn’t break the shackles of a disciplined Sri Lankan bowling attack. Tillakaratne Dilshan, already amongst the tournaments leading run-scorers, rediscovered the other key string to his bow (aside from his constant athleticism at backward point) by opening the bowling, finishing with most impressive figures of 1-40 off 10 tight overs. A blistering hundred in Dilshan’s unique swashbuckling style alongside the determined and unusually agricultural Mahela Jayawardene set-up an easy victory with an opening stand of 179. The deposed captain looked free once again, able to express himself without the pressure of captaincy bearing down on his already heavily burdened shoulders. The gruelling schedule left both teams battered and bruised, though the Lions’ were determined not to leave down under without the CB series crown. Into the third final the two teams went – Farveez Maharoof and Rangana Herath bowled tidily once again, and 231 seemed distinctly gettable bearing in mind the 271that was successfully chased just two days earlier. It wasn’t to be, a spirited Australian bowling performance on a wicket conducive to movement off-the-seam proved too much for the Sri Lankan top-order, the in-form duo of Lahiru Thirimanna and Upul Tharanga were left to steady the ship but it proved just too stiff a total for the lower-order to chase down.
So it was another loss in a final – a habit which I believe is more of a gift than a curse in that the consistency of the team in global tournaments is almost unrivalled, although getting past that winning post seems to be proving tricky. It is difficult not to be positive, however, after this tri-series down under. A quick look at the stats is revealing – in Australia’s own back yard Sri Lanka, usually branded as poor travellers, were victorious 4 out of 7 matches, and the 3 they lost were by 5, 15 and 16 runs. The margin of victory was 8 wickets on two occasions. There are signs of a cohesive and consistent batting unit with a healthy blend of youth and experience and alongside the thriving pace attack all seems to bode well for the immediate future, especially in limited overs cricket. A captain that has support in the form of 2 former captains, unrivalled tactical nous and gut instinct alongside a winning mentality that seems to be filtering through the team, the fiercely competitive Mahela Jayawardene is unquestionably the right leader at this present moment.
The next test will come with the Asia Cup, where over-familiar neighbours will once again do battle and then Sri Lanka host England for two test matches. After numerous test series losses the real challenge will be to climb back up the rankings by winning this series against a strong England outfit, keen to make amends for their recent showing against Pakistan. I believe the strong showing Down Under, and the style and spirit with which Sri Lanka played their cricket represents a change of mentality more akin to what was on display before that fateful World Cup Final. Here’s hoping that this proves not to be merely a temporary revival, but the start of a new exciting period – where nobody dare take Sri Lanka lightly.
Edited by Yasath