by Champika Fernando
After an exhausting several months of cricket at home, Sri Lanka will leave for UAE today in a state of flux and disarray. The team has little idea of what its best side is or even how to combat the opposition, Pakistan, which is now a formidable team in their “adopted” home, even without the retired Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq.
Following a particularly poor season across all formats, the Lankan team is searching for answers for their disappointing performances. With a high profile tour ahead of them, they are back to the drawing board with several key players missing the tour.
Sri Lanka are without Angelo Mathews, Upul Tharanga and Asela Gunaratne in the side as they take on Pakistan in a two-match test series with the second match being played under lights.
Thus, the lack of experience in their batting may be the biggest challenge Dinesh Chandimal will have to overcome as he undertakes his first overseas assignment as Test skipper.
However, Sri Lanka’s coach Nic Pothas does not consider the absence of senior cricketers as a major concern. He says there is a blend of youth and experience, a good proposition for a team searching for a turnaround of fortunes in the UAE.
Sri Lanka have lost eight of their last ten matches, including two 3-0 whitewashes against South Africa and India this year.
Their defeats to India were particularly heartbreaking as they lost all nine matches in the series across all three formats but, according to Pothas, these defeats have brought the team together as a unit.
“The exciting thing about the team is we have a lot of experienced players with exciting youngsters in the side,” Pothas, who gives out positive vibes about the team even when they are completely down, said.
“We have the experience in Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne in batting and Rangana Herath, Dilruwan Perera, Nuwan Pradeep and Suranga Lakmal in bowling,” he said. “So I am really excited about the pool of players.”
Although Chandimal didn’t have much success during Sri Lanka’s last tour to UAE, Rangana Herath and Suranga Lakmal were at their best along with Shaminda Eranga who is missing the forthcoming series. Herath picked up 14 wickets while Lakmal and Eranga had 12 each in the series. Pradeep picked up five wickets playing only one game.
Out of the 15-man squad, three are debutants (Roshen Silva, Sadeera Samarawickrama and Lahiru Gamage) with only Rangana Herath having more than 50 Test matches under his belt (83) and Dimuth Karunaratne at a distant second with 42 matches. Only Dinesh Chandimal has a Test average of above 40 among the current team.
Angelo Mathews, arguably the best batsman in the side, is missing at least the first Test with a calf strain and may not be considered for selection for the second Test unless he is fully fit, leaving a huge responsibility on the shoulders of Roshen Silva, who is the likely Mathews replacement in the side.
Mathews, in fact, was the highest run scorer in the Test series when Sri Lanka toured them last in 2013-14, making as many as 412 runs in five innings with an average of 103. His 157, the highest score of the series, helped Sri Lanka win the second Test in Dubai.
“With a heavy international schedule ahead, we don’t want to take a risk with him unless he is fully fit,” said Asanka Gurusinha, a selector, and Cricket Manager. “If he is, he can just walk into the side”. But in all probability, he will sit out the Test series and join the squad for the limited-overs leg which includes five ODIs and three T20Is, including the third one in Lahore.
Gunaratne is still a new kid on the block when it comes to Test cricket but has proven to be a dependable middle-order batsman. With a century and three half-centuries under his belt in his first six matches, he is a vital cog in Sri Lanka’s wheel. His absence due to a fractured thumb adds to Sri Lanka’s misery.
The limited-over skipper Tharanga, on the other hand, ruled himself out from Test cricket for six months to concentrate on limited-over cricket.
Pothas admits playing Pakistan in UAE is a big challenge but did not rule out a Sri Lanka victory if the players give it their best.
“Playing Pakistan in UAE is always going to be a challenge. We planned and we strategised and are well prepared to go out there and perform,” he said, speaking to the Sunday Times. “I think the most important thing is for us to play our best cricket. I think that’s the most important part. We can’t worry too much about the opposition”.
Pothas, who has earlier criticised Sri Lanka’s fickle selection, insisted on giving a decent run to a player to establish himself in the side.
“What we are looking at is giving a fair chance to a player,” Pothas, who replaced Graham Ford in the interim as head coach, said. “If you look at the Australian series which we won in a 3-0 whitewash, Dimuth, who is one of the best players at the moment, couldn’t pass 20 in that series. There was only one player who was changed in that whole series. Kaushi (Kaushal Silva) didn’t really get that many runs in the whole series but he got a hundred in the last game and that was the faith. He is a quality player”.
Sri Lanka squad: Dinesh Chandimal (capt), Lahiru Thirimanne (vice-capt), Dimuth Karunaratne, Kaushal Silva, Kusal Mendis, Sadeera Samarawickrama, Roshen Silva, Niroshan Dickwella, Rangana Herath, Lakshan Sandakan, Dilruwan Perera, Suranga Lakmal, Nuwan Pradeep, Vishwa Fernando, Lahiru Gamage