By Champika Fernando at Riverside, Durham
The Sri Lanka cricket team is like the British weather. If you like them one day—like on June 21, when they brought down one of the pre-tournament favourites, England—there’s a good chance you might dislike them the next. So contrasting have been Sri Lanka’s conduct in this year’s World Cup.
On Friday, they produced one of their most ridiculous performances in recent history, handing out a comprehensive victory to a team playing more for pride than to stay afloat in the tournament. Sri Lanka’s struggle against South Africa was painful to watch: no fight, no intent and no aggression. It was pathetic. All they needed was a win here to strengthen their position going into Monday’s clash against West Indies. They collapsed like nine pins.
With all those pre-match preparations leading up to Friday’s game, they only required to play with positivity and carry the momentum forward from that great victory against England. Instead, they faltered; faltered inexplicably at crucial moments to lose a game they should have won to stay comfortably afloat in the tournament.
As in the previous game, Sri Lanka had the worst possible start. They lost skipper Dimuth Karunaratne off the first ball of the innings. But Avishka Fernando and Kusal Perera put on a rapid stand of 67 for the second wicket as Sri Lanka scored 67 runs off the first power play. Once Avishka and Kusal Perera departed within a space of 10 balls for identical scores of 30, however, Sri Lanka were all at sea.
Angelo Mathews, the experienced campaigner, and Kusal Mendis, the elegant top order batsman, were in the middle for some time. But they batted like deer caught in the headlights, playing into South African hands. They shared 28 runs for the third wicket in 71 balls, out of which 49 balls were dot balls. It was a statement of their misery against a disciplined bowling attack.
Out of the 297 they faced in the match, Sri Lanka played out 183 balls without scoring a run– a staggering 61.6 dot ball percentage. This is something you don’t see in contemporary limited-over cricket. When they were bowled out just three balls before the allotted 50 overs, Sri Lanka had managed to score only 203 runs. It was a mediocre score against a formidable outfit.
With no runs on the board, even the great Lasith Malinga could do little to stop a South African victory. He yorked opener Quinton de Kock with a dipping toe-crusher to leave South Africa 31 for 1 by the fifth over. That was all he could do for the rest of the innings as Hashim Amla and Faf-du-Plessis shared an unbeaten 175-run second wicket stand to chasten the hapless Lankans.
Sri Lankan bowlers lacked penetration and it was easy meat for the two batsmen Amla and Du-Plessis who scored 80 and 96, respectively, to lead them to their second victory in the World Cup.
The defeat was a rude shock to the islanders. They now need to win their remaining two matches and hope that all other teams—England, Bangladesh and Pakistan—lose their remaining games. That is the only way they will occupy the last remaining spot in the semi-finals. This is a possibility. Not a probability, given how teams like Pakistan have approached their games in the latter part of the tournament. Another loss will see Sri Lanka joining the likes of South Africa, Afghanistan and West Indies on early flights home after their last group game against India on July 6. Unless something drastic happens, India, Australia and New Zealand are all but assured of their places in the last four. And Pakistan, with their last two games against Bangladesh and Afghanistan, have the strongest chance to enter the semis.
Even though Sri Lanka pulled off two low-scoring thrillers against Afghanistan and England, their only wins so far in the tournament, their batting in all five games was mediocre. Not once did they manage a score of over 250. And only once did the bat out the 50 overs, an indictment on the country’s fickle selection policy.
Sri Lanka has tried out as many players during the last two tours and questions are being asked whether selectors chose the best available squad to represent the country on the world’s biggest stage. No one would argue that, by including Jeevan Mendis, Milinda Siriwardena, Thisara Perera, Lahiru Thirimanna and Jeffrey Vandersay, Sri Lanka has brought in a busload of passengers at the cost of deserving players like Niroshan Dickwella, Upul Tharanga, Dasun Shanaka, Dinesh Chandimal and Akila Dananjaya.
Skipper Dimuth Karunaratne admitted his side had only themselves to blame for the defeat.
“It was a must-win game for us,” he said.
“It was a pretty good wicket and we couldn’t get a good total on the board. The disappointing thing was Avishka and Kusal batted really well, but we couldn’t rotate and there were a lot of dot balls. Those are the main things we ended up with 200 runs.”
Sri Lanka are back in action here on Monday against the West Indies.
A defeat will eliminate them from the tournament while a win will grant them some hope until they meet the mighty Indians next Saturday at Headingley, a ground which Sri Lanka now has fond memories of.