The fourth T20 World Cup began in the emerging town of Hambantota, Sri Lanka today, as the host nation kicked off the tournament against the clear underdogs of Group C, Zimbabwe. Such games are always a potential banana-skin for the better teams, and so it was some relief to see Sri Lanka dispatch their rivals with such consummate ease this evening. Brendan Taylor elected to bowl on winning the toss, no doubt hoping to grab a few early wickets and put the hosts under pressure. Sri Lanka were not completely dominant with the bat, but nonetheless did an efficient job racking up 182-4 off their 20 overs. Tillakaratne Dilshan started the innings positively with his 39 (off 28 balls), and his good work was continued by Kumar Sangakkara, who recently cleaned up at the ICC Awards, winning Cricketer of the year, Test Cricketer of the year and the People’s Choice award. Sangakkara’s well paced innings of 44 (26) was complemented by the thoroughly impressive Jeevan Mendis, who scored 43* (30). Mendis entered with SL stalling on 82-3 in the 12th over, and revitalised the innings with his spark and energy. Inventive strokeplay was coupled with some lively running, and Mendis and Sangakkara did well to haul Sri Lanka up to 182-4, a total which was by no means colossal, but one which nonetheless seemed sufficient on a slow track that offered some help for the bowlers.
As it turned out, 182-4 was far more than sufficient. Though the Zimbabwean openers negotiated the first five overs without loss, the introduction of the recalled Ajantha Mendis caused them all sorts of problems. Ajantha took 2 wickets in 2 balls in his first over, including Zimbabwe’s captain and star player Brendan Taylor for a golden duck. From there, the African side’s batting subsided meekly in the face of the wiles of Sri Lankan’s spinners, with Jeevan Mendis also coming on to take 3-24 with his canny leg-breaks. It was Ajantha Mendis however, who stole the plaudits and the Man of the Match award with an utterly bamboozling spell of 6-8 off his 4 overs, including 2 maidens. These were the best ever figures in a T20 international, topping a record he himself owned previously with his 6-16 against Australia last year. Ajantha fully justified his return to the side, delivering attacking lines and varied speeds while also teasing the batsmen with his concoction of off-breaks, googlies and carrom balls. It remains to be seen how he will cope with stiffer opposition as the tournament goes on, but hopefully he will continue to break records and lead Sri Lanka to success!
Convincing though the win was, it must be said that this was not the perfect performance by Sri Lanka. One particularly disappointing aspect was their running between the wickets, with three run-outs, and atypically, our fielding was also at times sloppy, which will get punished against better sides. As well as this, Zimbabwe were undeniably poor today. Their batsmen folded without resistance to the Sri Lankan attack, and aside from the spinners Cremer and Utseya, their bowling was fairly disappointing. Worst of all for the Zimbabwean fans, their fielding was pathetic. One double-misfield on the straight boundary was probably the funniest thing seen on a cricket field since this year’s Gecko Sixes, where a hapless (and anonymous) young bowler got smashed for 36 runs in one over by a man who looked to be at least 55. Moving on in the tournament, Sri Lanka will perhaps also look for a bit more of a cutting edge from their seamers, though Nuwan Kulasekara did swing the new ball around dangerously at the start. Pitches in Sri Lanka have changed in recent years, and swing bowlers like Kulasekara may have a genuine impact with the new ball in this tournament.
There is certainly room for improvement in this side, but also reason for cautious optimism that we may do well in this tournament, especially given our home advantage. The veteran unit of Dilshan, Mahela and Sangakkara give SL a backbone of class and experience in the upper and middle order than any side would envy. Though the debutant Dilshan Munaweera did not fire today, he is an explosive power-hitter who is worth persevering with, as proven by his stirring performances in the domestic SLPL tournament, where he topped the run-scoring charts with 212 runs at a strike-rate of 144, including 5 brutal sixes in the final as he lead his side Uva to the title. On top of this, the lower-middle order, so long an area of concern for Sri Lanka, is boosted by our battery of all-rounders: Angelo Mathews, Thisara Perera and Jeevan Mendis. This is perhaps Sri Lanka’s main strength, the luxury of having three all rounders who are each capable of having a major impact on any given day. All three are able to provide powerful impetus with the bat, bowl useful overs and also perform impressive feats in the field. Finally, the presence of arguably the world’s best T20 bowler, Lasith Malinga, and the added X-factor of Ajantha Mendis give Sri Lanka a side that can compete with anyone else in the world, at least on paper. Unfortunately though, trophies are not won on paper, and Twenty20 is a format that is ultimately something of a lottery. Anyone can beat anyone on their day, and whoever wins this tournament will need not only brilliance, but also a generous portion of good-fortune. Let us hope that Sri Lanka enjoy plenty of this luck as they go on to face better teams, and if we all keep our fingers crossed, it might just be that our boys bring home the cup!