This article was written on 24 January 2011 in response to a request from an Indian friend. I am not sure whether it has appeared anywhere in the Indian media world; but consider that I am not obliged to wait any longer to present it to the Sri Lankan public.
The World Cup 2011 is wide open. Though Ian Chappell has asserted that only India, England, Sri Lanka, Australia and South Africa have “a realistic chance’ of winning,[i] I disagree. The quarter final knock-out stage looms as an moment of ambush where any one of the other sides can eliminate the favoured few. New Zealand and Bangladesh have balanced and competent squad, while Pakistan and the West Indies have mercurial men who can turn games. Again, the minnows may provide an occasional surprise or two in the first rounds.
Besides, all of us are familiar with the beautiful vicissitudes of the game cricket. Rain, unpredictable atmospheric conditions, umpiring errors and toss, all these and more can swing a game against the best of sides. Ask Pakistan after their recent match at Wellington when both sides would have batted if they won the toss: Pakistan did and were then undermined by a seaming, swinging minefield.
For Sri Lanka there is the additional burden imposed by the weight of expectation within the island arising from recent successes in the ODI realm and the fact that Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 1996 in sub-continental conditions.
However, they had one advantage in 1996 that is missing now: they were unknowns and had nothing to lose. The present situation encourages giddiness in the public realm and in team circles that the management will be stretched to combat. Even home advantage ahs been reduced by the administration’s decisions to stage the matches on three grounds where the pitches are relatively new and not familiar to the team; namely, Sooriyawewa, Pallekelle and Premadasa stadiums.
The Premadasa Stadium is the most worrying of these pitches. In recent series atmospheric and/or pitch conditions have made it a nightmare for the side batting second. In effect, the toss has decided outcomes and ruined cricket as cricket. Whether the conditions in February-March will reproduce this circumstance is anybody’s guess.
Selection Conundrums for Sri Lanka
The Selection Committee (SC) headed by Aravinda de Silva did well to resist the populist pressures to include the old war horses Jayasuriya and Vaas. My inside information is that the SC looked at prospective Elevens for each match at each ground; and then reassembled their best Fifteen on this basis. This was surely an intelligent procedure that deserves plaudits.
Both Aravinda and Sangakkara faced the local media squarely and explained the reasoning which guided their ultimate choices. It had been as emotionally disturbing as hard to drop Vaas and Jayasuriya; but they opted for a balanced squad. Kulasekera was deemed superior to Vaas and there were question marks over Vaas’s second spell in ODIs.[ii]
In the realm of spin bowlers Muralitharan was their first choice spinner. In those games where a second spin-bowler was required, they wished to have a left-arm sin option to utilise against right-hand batsmen: hence the selection of Rangana Herath. This left the choice of third spin bowler to a comparison of Ajantha Mendis and Suraj Randiv. Mendis “is still only mastered by a few” (Sangakkara)[iii] and “Randiv didn’t fit into the combinations which we needed in the 15” (de Silva).
Thus, it was variety and balance that dictated the ultimate Fifteen and Aravinda was especially grieved by the decision to omit Randiv, Vaas and Jayasuriya.[iv] These public clarifications did not address the questions raised by cricket enthusiasts about the choice of Chamara Silva and Chamara Kapugedera as back-up middle-order batsmen for the extremely difficult positions at Nos. 6-7 where it is understood that Angelo Mathews (batting allrounder & medium-pacer) and now a proven hand will occupy one slot at anywhere from 5 to 7 – supported at times by Tissara Perera as a medium-pace bowling allrounder at No. 7 or no. 8. My inside information is that Bayliss and skipper Sangakkara see Kapugedera as a consummate team man (in the Arnold mould as I would add) and were strong advocates of his selection.
It is also clear that the SC went for players with lots of international experience in ODIs when it came to the crunch, so that Jeewan Mendis, Tharanga Paranavithana and others lost out to Upul Tharanga (aged 25), Silva (aged 31) and Kapugedera (23 )but lots of international matches under their belt. This is certainly a competent Fifteen. Nevertheless, I worry about the presence of so many batsmen who cannot be used as occasional bowlers. Dilshan is certainly an off-spin option and can be deemed an allrounder. Kapugedera can be useful slow medium. Samaraweera may have begun life as an off-spinner, but he has not bowled for years after a finger injury. Silva’s leg-spin is a gambler’s throw.
For this reason I would have selected Jayasuriya instead of Silva mainly because of the variety he brings to the squad as allrounder who can be an asset in the middle order or even open batting in suitable conditions. The other options here were Jeewan Mendis, M. Pushpakumara, Dilruwan Perera and Jehan Mubarak; but other than Mendis the others would have been long shots and their selection would have rightly drawn fire.
Again the arguments for Ajantha Mendis can be extended to Vaas. In certain bowling conditions in Sri Lanka he can provide a bag of wickets at the start and scuttle a batting side. For this reason I would have set him alongside Dilhara Fernando as pace option. However, such a choice would have left the squad with only one genuine pace option for the latter stages of the tournament. So it was a case of Hobson’s choice really. Such conundrums are quite normal in the cricket field are they not?
[i] Ian Chappell, “Aussies bluff big,” Sunday Mail, 23 January 2011.