Ava Gardner, at ESPNcricinfo, 21 June 2019, with this title “ Sri Lanka banking on ‘out of the box’ methods to stop England’s batsmen”
So far in this World Cup, Sri Lanka have been following the English blueprint. Unfortunately, it is not the one that has made the host nation one of the favourites to lift the trophy; rather, they appear to have channelled the spirit of various England campaigns between 1996 and 2015, in which last-minute changes to captaincy and personnel paved the way for predictably underwhelming results.
At the last two tournaments, England’s defeats to Sri Lanka were particularly symbolic. In 2011, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Upul Tharanga raced each other to hundreds and, almost as a pleasing byproduct, knocked England out at the quarter-final stage. Four years later, Joe Root’s first World Cup century was upstaged by one apiece from Kumar Sangakkara and Lahiru Thirimanne delivering a similar punchlines in a nine-wicket win.
Sri Lanka have, in fact, won four of their last five World Cup encounters against England. At Faisalabad in 1996, Sanath Jayasuriya’s 44-ball 82 signposted how the game had changed – but now it is England who are bending the white-ball game into new shapes, having just broken their own world record for the number of sixes in an ODI while crashing their way to 397 against Afghanistan on Tuesday.
Asked how his side planned to tackle England’s ebullient batting line-up, Sri Lanka captain Dimuth Karunaratne suggested they had come up with some plans that involved “thinking out of the box”. He said the initial target was to try and limit England to less than 300, a score they have surpassed in eight of their last nine innings.
“England are a good side, they have a good batting line-up,” he said. “We have to give them less than 300, so we have a couple of plans against the batters. Those are the things were are trying to do. In [our] batting line-up, the middle part have to take some responsibility, if they have scored more than 300 then we have to go for that. Those are the key things we discussed before the match.
“If we don’t have pace, we have to think out of the box. That’s what we did the last few days, [work on] what we have to do with England’s batsmen. We played a home series before against them, so we have a couple of ideas.”
Only six of the 16 players who took on England in October stand a chance of being involved at Headingley – a marker of how turbulent Sri Lanka’s build-up to the World Cup has been – but the strength of their batting has become a common talking point. As well as describing each member of the England line-up as “dangerous… explosive batsmen”, Karunaratne called them best players of spin in the world.
The precise nature of Sri Lanka’s tactics to counter them – inventing a new kind of delivery? Moonwalking to the bowling crease? – remains under wraps, but the sight of Nuwan Pradeep practising his slower-ball variations during training may have been instructive. Lack of pace is one of Lasith Malinga’s deadliest weapons, while Isuru Udana enjoyed some success by mixing things up at the death against Australia.
“If we don’t have pace, we have to think out of the box. That’s what we did the last few days, [work on] what we have to do with England’s batsmen.” Dimuth Karunaratne
With one win from five games (albeit two of them being washouts), Sri Lanka face a difficult route to the last four. Although they had a decent crack at chasing 335 in their last match, Karunaratne leading the way with an ODI-best 97, once again they struggled for contributions from the middle order. According to the captain, a change of mindset is what is required from the likes of Kusal Mendis and Angelo Mathews.
“We have to mentally prepare,” he said. “They have lots of talent, they only do good things for Sri Lanka in the past. The only thing we need to come up with is a good mindset, that’s a key area if you’re playing against a good team. No point talking about the past matches, we know what happened and what are the key areas. There are four games left and we have to play positive cricket with a good mindset.
“The middle order has lots of experience, they have proven enough for Sri Lanka and did well. The only thing is unfortunately everyone couldn’t get a start. If you take the middle order, they couldn’t get a start in the matches we played. That’s why they struggled and don’t have confidence. So that’s why I told them, forget about the last four games we have another four games to go so they have to put their hands up and play a big role here. Make sure they have a good mindset, go and enjoy the game, that’s it.”
Karunaratne also clarified the role of Dhananjaya de Silva, who has batted everywhere from No. 1 to No. 9 in Sri Lanka’s ODI side. Against Australia, he dropped down to No. 8 and also delivered eight overs with the ball, while Milinda Siriwardana came in to provide greater firepower in the batting.
“Dhananjaya is playing as a bowler right now in the side,” Karunaratne said. “Milinda is playing as an allrounder, he’s a much harder hitter, that’s why we brought him in. If someone can’t bowl the ten overs, then he can cover [as well]. We were trying things, we want to make sure we give everyone a chance.”