The Sri Lanka squad for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 contained two big surprises for me: the absence of opener Upul Tharanga and the inclusion of Jeevan Mendis as a spin-bowling all-rounder. Tharanga’s omission shocked me. True, he had not been picked against England or New Zealand, but he has a decent One-Day International record, averaging just under 34, and he has the precious gift of experience, with 176 matches under his belt.
He was a key member of our squads in both 2007 and 2011 when we reached the final on both occasions, and in that latter tournament he made 395 runs, including centuries against Zimbabwe and England, at an excellent strike-rate of almost 84 runs per hundred balls.
Tharanga was involved with the one-day side as recently as the hastily arranged tour of India in November and my strong preference would have been to have him to open alongside Tillakaratne Dilshan and, rather than leaving out Dimuth Karunaratne, the man now earmarked for that role, I would have sacrificed Jeevan Mendis.
I have nothing against Mendis and if the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 was taking place in the sub-continent then he would be a natural pick with his combination of handy leg-spin, busy batting and dynamism in the field. But on surfaces where spin is unlikely to be a factor, and with two spinners in Rangana Herath and Sachithra Senanayake, plus the part-time option of Dilshan, already in the squad, I cannot see what role he will fill. On that basis it looks like a wasted spot to me.
Karunaratne has talent and I hope he clicks at the top of the order but if he does not, and in the absence of an option like Tharanga to fall back on, it may force Sri Lanka to once more push Mahela Jayawardena up to open alongside Dilshan. He did that role at the back-end of the series against England last year but he is too good a player to potentially lose to the new ball as he can control the middle period and the final overs of an innings so well. I would want to see him remain at four and if he does so then a middle-order of Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela and Angelo Mathews looks as good as any in the tournament.
I do agree with chairman of selectors Sanath Jayasuriya about the inclusion of Lasith Malinga, that his selection is a risk worth taking, even though the fast bowler is still on the comeback trail following surgery to his left ankle last year. Malinga is a match-winner, someone who will enjoy conditions in Australia and New Zealand and as, like Mahela and Kumar, he is likely to be playing his last ICC Cricket World Cup, he may well find within himself the extra motivation to go out with a bang, especially as he was part of the squad that fell at the final hurdle in both 2007 and 2011.
The good news for him and for Sri Lanka is that with a lengthy series against New Zealand beforehand, it means his progress can be closely monitored by team management and he can be gradually brought up to speed so that he is fully fit and firing by the time we reach the opening match, against the co-hosts in Christchurch on 14 February. Even if he is not completely fit by then, it is still worth having him around as he has the potential to be a real threat in the latter stages of the tournament.
There was no place for mystery spinner Ajantha Mendis but he simply does not have the form to justify his inclusion ahead of either Herath or Senanayake. The selectors have got that call absolutely right. The same is true of the absence of batsman Kusal Janith Perera. He is an exciting talent but there has to come a time when he converts that talent into consistent performances and he is yet to do that at this level.
I do worry about the balance of the squad thanks to Jeevan Mendis’s inclusion ahead of Tharanga but overall it is a solid line-up, full of experience, especially in the batting, and if everyone stays fit – always a big if over a tournament of this length – and finds form then there is no reason why Sri Lanka cannot at least match their achievements of the last two editions.
The victory in the ICC World Twenty20 Bangladesh 2014 gave real confidence and belief to the players that they can win on the global stage. And on that basis, a repeat of what happened in 1996 would be something really special.
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