Sri Lankans lov­ing their un­der­dog tag

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT - STU­ART HESS

NEWS THAT Sri Lanka cap­tain An­gelo Mathews will miss to­mor­row’s open­ing Cham­pi­ons Tro­phy match against South Africa with a ham­string in­jury is sim­ply an­other ad­di­tion to the litany of con­cerns the Sri Lankans are car­ry­ing into the tour­na­ment.

Their bowl­ing is be­low-par, their bat­ting lacks con­sis­tency, their field­ing has be­come a joke and their over­all form is wishy-washy. Nat­u­rally they’re be­ing seen as no more than also-rans in Group B.

Their re­cent record against the other teams in the Group makes for de­press­ing read­ing – they were swept by both South Africa and In­dia in five matches se­ries on the last oc­ca­sions they played them and lost a se­ries at home to Pak­istan 3-2 in 2015.

But, un­sur­pris­ingly, they are also rev­el­ling in that un­der­dog sta­tus and of course a team that feels it has noth­ing to lose can be a very danger­ous one in­deed. “Some­times that is a good place to be. We’ve cer­tainly got a chance of up­set­ting one of the so-called bet­ter na­tions,” com­mented coach Gra­ham Ford.

To take ad­van­tage of the rel­a­tive free­dom they have in this tour­na­ment Sri Lanka has some po­tent tal­ent at its dis­posal. The bat­ting, though ob­vi­ously hurt by the loss of Mathews still has some dy­namic tal­ent. Niroshan Dick­wella was a mys­tery to the South Africans ear­lier this year when he led Sri Lanka to suc­cess in the T20 se­ries and then led the run scor­ing charts for them in the sub­se­quent ODI se­ries. He’s an ad­ven­tur­ous type, ir­ri­tat­ing for op­pos­ing bowlers, bril­liant for team­mates and neu­tral view­ers.

In Kusal Mendis they have an­other won­der­fully at­tack­ing young player who didn’t dis­play his best against the Proteas last sum­mer, while Di­nesh Chandi­mal, Asela Gu­naratne and Upul Tha­ranga pro­vide ex­pe­ri­ence with the bat.

Much will de­pend on La­sith Malinga with the ball. Al­though there’ve been doubts ahead of the tour­na­ment about his fit­ness, he seemed to dis­pel those with an eight over spell against Aus­tralia in a warm-up game at The Oval last week. Malinga’s role goes be­yond just sling­ing in york­ers at the ‘death’ for he is an in­spi­ra­tional fig­ure for the rest of his team­mates.

Ford has sought to off­set the lack of con­fi­dence in his squad by sur­round­ing them with with a knowl­edge­able back-room staff, call­ing on Al­lan Don­ald to sup­ple­ment a bowl­ing coach­ing unit con­tain­ing – Chaminda Vaas, Cham­paka Ra­manayake, Ravin­dra Push­paku­mara and Nuwan Zoysa. In­clud­ing Don­ald, that coach­ing unit has 674 caps worth of ODI ex­pe­ri­ence which the Sri Lankan bowlers can call upon.

Don­ald ad­mit­ted his role is not a tech­ni­cal one, but rather to in­spire in­di­vid­u­als – some­thing he did a lot of when he worked with the Proteas. ‘White Light­ning’ is no stranger to op­er­at­ing in the op­po­si­tion camp against the coun­try he served with such dis­tinc­tion as a player and more re­cently as bowl­ing coach. At the 2011 World Cup he was New Zealand’s bowl­ing coach, help­ing the Black Caps come up with strate­gies that un­der­mined South Africa in the quar­ter-fi­nal in Dhaka and in­sti­gat­ing an­other of the men­tal melt­downs for which the Proteas are fa­mous at ICC tour­na­ments.

Don­ald be­lieves Sri Lanka’s at­tack “has what it takes to win the tour­na­ment”, but words and deeds are sep­a­rated by many miles once the white line’s been crossed.

Sri Lanka’s ODI record in the last two years makes for wretched read­ing – just 13 vic­to­ries out of 38 matches – and in warm­ing up for this tour­na­ment they lost three of four matches in­clud­ing one to Scot­land. They will draw some com­fort from the fact that they scored to­tals top­ping 300 against Aus­tralia (at The Oval) and New Zealand, with Tha­ranga mak­ing 110 against the lat­ter. Still, for all their prob­lems, Sri Lanka has some magic in their ranks and if the oc­ca­sion takes them they are more than ca­pa­ble of up­set­ting the ap­ple-cart. And with ex­pec­ta­tions so low they re­ally won’t feel as much pres­sure as the No 1 ranked ODI team will.

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