By Denesh “Deno” Srikantharajah
As the dust settles on Sri Lanka’s memorable World T20 triumph, it appears now is not only a time of reflection but also a period of transition for the men in blue.
You would not find a true cricket fan who would deny Kumar Sangakkara or Mahela Jayawardene their moment in the sun – their exit from the T20 international stage akin to a blaze of glory. After years of missed opportunities, and a truly world-class innings by a certain Adam Gilchrist, Sri Lanka had finally done it – and for Sangakkara to make a match-winning innings in the final made it all that much sweeter.
However, if one looks at their respective international T20 records, it is clear to see that it is the diminutive Jayawardene who has been the main man for Sri Lanka in the shortened format. Whilst his average of 31.76 is almost identical to that of Sangakkara (31.40), it is his strike rate of 133 compared to 119 that demonstrates that his elegant batting style was more than a match for the brutal power-hitting that often dominates T20 cricket.
But whilst it is important to celebrate these two stalwarts, it is clear that there are a number of caveats that must be addressed. Firstly, both of these players are still available for ODIs and Test matches, and thus this extravagant send off needs to be put into context – indeed the cricketing purists will not feel they have retired in any sense of the word, but have instead put aside their hobby to focus on their job.
Secondly, whilst the focus has been on who will step up to the plate to replace these greats, may be of more importance in the short term at least is who will step up to replace the departed Paul Farbrace as head coach, who has recently joined the England set-up as assistant coach to Peter Moores…
In some ways, his arrival in England has slipped under the radar, yet his departure from the Sri Lanka set-up may have lasting repercussions. This is a man who has not only taken Sri Lanka to an Asia Cup success, but also to World Cup glory – and all in the space of three months. He deserves enormous credit, and it was not only Sanath Jayasuriya who noted the impact that this would have on the Sri Lankan game. Moreover, what should be stressed is that no one would deny Farbrace his desire to work for his home nation and be closer to his family, and he cannot be blamed for seizing this opportunity.
However, it appears fans simply want a period of stability in the current set-up – what with captains playing pass the parcel with the armband and legends approaching the end of their careers – it would not seem far-fetched to ask for the management team to remain a constant. Nevertheless, the emergence of Marvan Attapatu as head coach will hopefully galvanise the team for the future, and for the time being he is the man chosen to take the team forward.
Inevitably, the immediate future sees Sri Lanka head to England for their upcoming tour and a swift reunion with Farbrace. Whilst the circumstances of his departure to England adds an intriguing subplot to this tour, what is more important is that it will provide the answers to the many questions fans will undoubtedly have about the team and the new coach.
In essence, Sri Lanka’s record in England reflects their general status in the long and shortened formats of the game: whilst only winning 2 out of 13 test matches in England since 1984, they beat England 5-0 in the NatWest series in 2006 before losing 3-2 in a close fought repeat series in 2011. Many purists will argue that the upcoming two-match test series is meaningless; and it is true that if Sri Lanka are determined to further their reputation in Test cricket, they must play at least a three match series against cricketing nations outside of the subcontinent. However, despite the scheduling, this series gives Attapatu a chance to evaluate his different options in an environment Sri Lankan players are often found wanting.
Firstly, the captaincy issue is fascinating, with Angelo Mathews – named Test captain in March 2013 – also being named captain for the upcoming ODIs, with Lasith Malinga continuing the captaincy of the T20 side he marshalled so expertly in the semi-final and final of the World T20. It signals a new dawn for Sri Lankan cricket, and Mathews will need to demonstrate he is the right man to lead Sri Lanka for years to come. So far he has thrived as captain, leading from the front with an average of 80 as Test captain and 44.11 in 32 matches as ODI captain. However, it is also interesting to note that Lahiru Thirimanne has been named vice-captain for both ODIs and T20s. Whilst this may seem of little significance, it reflects Thirimanne’s growing standing within this unit – and at the age of 24, he is another who will be hoping this tour will be a defining one for him, and one that will catch the eyes of the cricketing world.
The other area of interest comes in the spin department, an area which Sri Lanka have never had trouble filling. However, if the recent Cup triumph is anything to go by, it is that Ajantha Mendis is rapidly becoming too predictable to cause real danger to the top teams. Whilst England’s struggles with spin bowling have been well documented, Mendis faces stiff competition from Rangana Herath, who replaced Mendis in the aforementioned tournament with outstanding success. Teams travelling to England often only select one front-line spinner and it will be interesting to see whether Mendis or Herath gets the nod.
Finally, the unknown quantity in this tour is how England will react after what is increasingly being coined their “worst winter in history”. With a new coaching team and the implosion of their top order, this England team will be very different from that of previous years. It would be refreshing to see Moores try out some new names, such as Sam Robson in Tests (after performing exceptionally well for the Lions) and Harry Gurney in the ODIs. After all, he has been brought in to nurture new talent, and this is the ideal opportunity to begin that project.
Whilst this is effectively the start of England’s rehabilitation, they should not be discarded as a top team in the cricketing world – England are the only team that Sri Lanka lost against en route to winning the World Cup, and despite initial cracks showing up last summer against Australia, they still defeated the men from down under 3-0 on home soil, which has often been forgotten during this winter of woe. When Angelo Mathews claimed “the main thing is to adapt to the conditions”, it was with the understanding that facing England on home soil is a very difficult proposition.
But it is one that should not be feared.
And with both teams in a state of transition, it will be an interesting few weeks ahead. Results aside, it will be fascinating to see which players grab this opportunity on both sides to stake a claim for the future. Realistically however, modern day sport is a results business, and Sri Lanka will be secretly hoping to offer Farbrace a glimpse of “what could have been” with victory across all three formats. Though history suggests victory in the Tests may be out of reach, recent times in Sri Lankan cricket can only provide confidence that nothing is impossible.