By Harsha Amarasinghe
The Sri Lanka Under-19 team may not have won a single title in the tournament’s 22-year history, but there was this feel-good factor about the juniors ahead of this year’s ICC Under 19 World Cup in South Africa, especially due to their recent success in the West Indies.
Certainly they did not look like world-beaters, but a tenth-place finish was quite embarrassing for a team full of some very promising youngsters.
So where did it all go wrong for Sri Lanka’s Under-19s?
It was felt that Sri Lanka team management and the coaching staff tried too many experiments with the middle order during the tournament. Arguably the two best batsmen in the Sri Lanka squad, Navod Paranavithana and Kamil Mishara, remained at top for most of the games with Ravindu Rasantha who top scored in the plate final against England at first drop.
Sri Lanka were not expected to put up a fight against U-19 heavyweights India, but they actually battled hard before eventually going down by 90 runs. That defeat in the opening match put Sri Lanka in a must-win situation against New Zealand which was a virtual pre-quarter final.
In that game Sri Lanka did not off to a flying start, but the top four batsmen did decently to get starts, each getting past 20. However, none of them were able to convert their starts and at 112 for 5 (27.1), Sri Lanka made a tactical blunder which possibly ended their World Cup campaign.
Instead of sending in Ahan Wickramasinghe, who was one of Sri Lanka’s heroes from their triumph in West Indies prior to the World Cup, Sri Lanka’s coaching staff and management opted to send a bowler, Sudheera Tillekeratne, who had been batting down the order. This proved to be a very costly gamble as he only managed six runs in 33 balls and the decision looked even worse when Wickramasinghe batting so low down at number 8 came in and smashed 64 runs in 48 balls giving Sri Lanka some hope.
Sri Lanka eventually went on to lose in a nail-biting match with New Zealand reaching the target with just one ball remaining, but that defeat meant the islanders were out of the World Cup.
“It was a strange decision. Ahan has been batting very well and he was even considered to bat at four. I think sending him at 8 was a mistake,” an expert close to the Sri Lanka Under-19 setup told Daily Mirror.
However, Sri Lanka head coach Hashan Tillakaratne defended what was a collective decision made to send in Sudheera Tillekeratne ahead of Wickramasinghe.
“We were going along nicely but we lost something like three wickets in three overs and their leg spinner (Adithya Ashok) was bowling very well. So we did not want to expose Ahan to him which is why we sent in Sudheera and asked him to basically see off that spell. I think it would be unfair to criticize that decision because had Ahan got out to that spinner early, we would not have even made 200,” said the former Sri Lanka captain.
Sri Lanka’s Under-19 team also picked a three-spin attack against New Zealand and that too didn’t seem to work as New Zealand were cruising to the target on 217 for 3 at one stage.
“Playing three spinners was an idea based on the stats we had received. During this time of the year – the end of summer – the ball turns a lot. As we all know during the start of summer the ball would seam around. So again I think it was the right decision indeed and the ball did spin. The only problem was our fielding. I think we conceded something like 10-15 runs through misfielding and dropped a couple of catches, so that’s where we lost the match,” added the former elegant left-hander.
Although Sri Lanka Cricket has specifically named a set of junior selectors, the last few tours of the Under-19 team has included a senior selector. Vinodhan John travelled to the West Indies as the tour selector along with the coaching staff and team management and is said to have finalized the Sri Lanka squad while junior selectors, who have worked with these young boys probably from the start of their careers, had zero say in the final selection.
“I don’t wish to comment much on this matter. According to my knowledge there is a SLC constitution which allow the junior selectors to select players until the 30-man preliminary squad and from there onwards it would be the senior selectors who would carry out the selection, whether it is successful or not is something I don’t wish to comment, but as per the constitution that’s the procedure,” the 1996 World Cup winner explained.
17-year-old medium paceman Matheesha Pathirana who has a similar bowling action to Sri Lanka T20 Captain Lasith Malinga, was described by the Sri Lanka coaching staff as their ‘secret weapon’ prior to the tournament, but many felt he was not quite prepared for a World Cup just yet.
The Trinitian became a star overnight as the speed gun had indicated one of his deliveries against India in the opening match was bowled at 175kmph. He conceded 49 runs in his 8 overs against India and after that game he was only considered for the Nigeria game where he just bowled nine deliveries.
“He is a good prospect of course, but he is just 17 years old. He needs to learn the game and how to handle the pressure especially in the death overs. I think the World Cup came too early for him,” the cricket expert close to the U-19 squad further added.
Right hand batsman Avishka Tharindu’s omission from the squad was another debatable issue given the form he was in.
“Avishka Tharindu is a player who should have gone to South Africa because he had played quite a few matches and showed what he is capable of,” added the source.
Sri Lanka’s opening batsman Kamil Mishara has had his problems with regard to disciplinary matters, and it remains a mystery as to why he was dropped for the two games against Japan and Nigeria.
Tillakaratne however, conceded that they are not satisfied with the overall performance of the squad.
“We cannot be satisfied with the performance because we were expecting a better result. Especially in the game against New Zealand we had high hopes but unfortunately we failed to the quarter-finals,” Tillakaratne said.