By Champika Fernando
Chief cricket selector Ashantha De Mel often speaks of 'continuity' to give players a fair run in the team. The strategy seems to be bearing fruit. Sri Lanka’s 3-0 triumph against West Indies in the ODIs came against the backdrop of resolute selection, something that will be adhered to again as the team prepares for the World T20 qualifiers in Australia later this year.
"We are trying to give them a fair run of at least four to five games at a stretch," de Mel said, in an interview with the Sunday Times.
"This is all what players need and coaches want."
It is no secret Sri Lanka have used 57 ODI players and seven captains since the 2015 World Cup. Most concerning, however, was that they deployed 47 players since the Champions Trophy in 2017 up to the World Cup in England. This was the highest by any country.
"We want them to play fearless cricket, the type that we have been playing for decades," he asserted.
"We do not want them to worry about their places in the side because we have given them that license. We will back them even if they fail."
“If you look at Kumar Sangakkara, he did not make a 100 in his first 78 games," de Mel continued.
"But how many hundreds did he make at the end? Look at how TM Dilshan transformed his game. I can still remember him coming to me and asking whether to open batting and I replied that I will give him that opportunity. Look at how he changed his game after that. He went to a different level. But that was after playing so many games."
"These guys are still young and inexperienced," he explained.
"It will take time for them to really grab these opportunities and perform. We need to be patient with them. What is interesting now is we are trying hard to improve. This is a good sign. This is what the coaches also want. There’s a lot of self-belief now compared to the rut we were in. We are on the right path.”.
Accordingly, Sri Lanka will use the remaining T20 matches ahead of the mega event in Australia to bring the team up to the required standard. The 2014 champions will travel to Australia early to compete in the qualifying tournament as they failed to earn a direct qualifying to the tournament on the back of years of poor results in the shortest format.
“The coaches have a blueprint for what they want to do," de Mel said.
"They want to play the same team as much as possible leading up to the World Cup. They may bring in some experiment here and there to get the right combination. Apart from that, we will stick to the same team. When you are down to number 9 in the rankings, it’s not easy to come up since we are playing with the best in the world. Don’t expect the coaches to wave a magic wand. There is a lot of work to be done but we can clearly see commitment and enthusiasm in them and the players."
The Chief Selector singled out bowling and power-hitting as areas which they needed to upskill to be competitive.
“Even though we lost the (T20) series (against West Indies), I think we did well," he said.
"If you look at the first match, we reached over 170 runs chasing. In the second game, under tough conditions, we made in excess of 150. If we reduce the number of dot balls, we can put pressure on the bowlers. I think what we have to worry about is bowling. Our fielding has certainly improved, so has running between wickets. The coaches are really working hard on improving these skills."
De Mel has also recommended bringing down a specialised power-hitting coach for technique improvement to counter the absence of muscularity.
“We don’t have the strength like the West Indies," he said. "So we have to improve our technique to hit the ball with the bottom hand. If we can get someone down before May, I think it will help the players massively."
He confirmed that they have, more or less, identified the squad that will travel to Australia. But like all of us, they are wondering who should lead the side. Kusal Janith Perera is an option, given how badly Lasith Malinga performed as pack leader. His captaincy record, de Mel admits, is "poor".
He has managed a solitary win in 14 games.
"But I do not put the entire blame on him," he hastened.
"He gels better with the players now but not to the level we demand."
In all probability, Malinga will be removed from the captaincy come June, when Sri Lanka host South Africa. But the selectors are keeping their options open regarding his place in the side--waiting to see how Malinga performs in the IPL. Malinga’s recent performances suggest that, at 36, he is now ripe for retirement. He has picked up just seven wickets out of the 14 games he has captained, a far cry from being the team’s leading strike bowler.
"I agree that his performance has not been impressive," de Mel admitted.
"That’s something we will have to evaluate and see. He will be playing in the IPL and we can see how he performs there. He still has something to offer. Take the ball he got Andre Russell out with in the first game, it was a perfect delivery."
This means Malinga may still find a place in the squad, if he proves himself during the IPL, if not he will struggle to make it the squad only on his past laurels.
"We are not going closed the door on him," he continued.
"We will assess how he performs at the IPL and get feedback from Mahela Jayawardene, see where he stands, then decide. We can also ask the coach what he feels about Malinga as a bowler because he is experienced and still could bowl those deadly yorkers. This is something we have to evaluate before the South Africa series."