In a bid to continue dominance in major tournaments, Sri Lanka’s national selectors yesterday named a strong 15-man squad – including seamer Lasith Malinga and Chamara Kapugedara, both of whom returned to the ODI side after long hiatus.
Sri Lanka have earned a reputation as big tournament players, having entered almost all finals since 2007 World Cup up to the 2014 ICC World T20 tournament which they eventually won. But they’ve struggled since then with a number of high-profile retirements and injuries weakening the side.
Grouped with South Africa, India and Pakistan, Sri Lanka must clinch at least two matches to be in contention for a semi-final spot—and the selectors have likely got the best available team for this year’s global event.
“It’s a very tough group but I believe we do have the strength to beat any team,” skipper Angelo Matthews told the mirrorcricket.lk.
“The most important thing is we have around 14 days in England prior to the tournament and we will be playing around four warm-up matches. This period will be crucial for us.”
Lasith Malinga will bolster the seam attack while Chamara Kapugedara, who comes back into the side following a solid performance in the ongoing domestic tournament, will strengthen the middle order that also sees the return of regular skipper Mathews.
Malinga, who was on a long rehabilitation following a degenerative knee injury (bone-bruise), returned to action during the Australian T20s. While he hasn’t been at his menacing best since his return, his presence will send shivers down the spines of opposition batsmen owing to his ability to send toe-crushing yorkers with complete accuracy.
His career has been plagued by injuries. The 33-year-old last played an ODI against West Indies in November 2015 in Pallekele. Despite being named for the Asia Cup in 2016, Malinga could play only a single game before breaking down once again.
"We need to build him up to bowl 10 overs now,” Sri Lanka Cricket President Thilanga Sumathipala said at a press conference in Colombo yesterday. “He's playing in the IPL, which is to our advantage, because he's in a top-class cricketing environment and he's practising. Right now, we are getting reports that he's going into eight overs in a spell. We have to make sure he's fit to bowl 10 by about the 10th of May.”
On his return from injury, Malinga has impressively claimed 11 wickets in five T20 games he played, including a hat-trick against Bangladesh –his first in T20 internationals.
"Malinga has got his medical clearance to bowl 10 overs around two weeks ago,” Sumathipala said. “Match fitness is what he's lacking now. His physical fitness is superb. We are looking for Malinga to be fit to play the practice games before the tournament--it's very important for him to play those games.”
In addition to Malinga, the seam attack includes Suranga Lakmal, Nuwan Kulasekara and Nuwan Pradeep who comes back into the side replacing young Lahiru Kumara.
Kapugedara returns on the back of some good performances in the domestic game. Mathews believes the 30-year-old batsman is probably in brilliant form.
“He has been in terrific form in the recent weeks and his return to the side will strengthen the middle order,” Mathews. Kapugedara was brought back to the national limited-over side after a three-year hiatus to face New Zealand last year but was overlooked thereafter. He then gave a solid batting performance in the ongoing Inter-Provincial Tournament, scoring two hundreds in four innings. This earned him a recall.
Mathews was under rehabilitation since late January after injuring his hamstring during the T20 series against South Africa. He was expected to return to the side for the two-match T20 series against Bangladesh but was given extended rest.
“I am fit and in perfect condition,” said Mathews. “I have started bowling in the IPL and hoping to bowl the full quota during the Champions Trophy.”
Upul Tharanga, who led the limited-over sides in injured Mathews’ absence, will be vice-captain, replacing struggling Dinesh Chandimal.
Tharanga, who has made an useful contribution to the side since the tour of Zimbabwe last year, is expected to open batting either with Niroshan Dickwella or Kusal Perera. There was no place for opener Danushka Gunathilaka. Kusal Mendis and Asela Gunaratne retained their places while selectors also recalled all-rounder Thisara Perera to the side.
The spin department includes chinaman Lakshan Sandakan and Seekkuge Prasanna.
“We have a very long debate whether to include an off-spinner in place of a leg- spinner,” Mathews explained. “But we had to take a call, considering the conditions, and we decided to go with Sandakan and Prasanna instead of an office. The middle overs are going to be very, very crucial and we have seen lot of players struggling against leg-spinners even at the IPL. So we thought to go with leggies”.
Among the standby players for the tournament are Gunathilaka and off-spinner Dilruwan Perera--both of whom will be traveling with the squad. Milinda Siriwardana, Lahiru Kumara, Sachith Pathirana, Vikum Sanjaya and Akila Dananjaya are standbys who will be on training in Colombo.
Sri Lanka will leave the island on May 18 to England and expected to play South Africa in the opening match.