By Shehan Daniel
With the emergence of the likes of Bhanuka Rajapaksa, Osadha Fernando and Minod Bhanuka, National Selectors are spoilt for choice in preparation for next year’s ICC World T20, Chief Selector Ashantha de Mel said yesterday, adding that only a handful of players who opted out of the tour of Pakistan were guaranteed of immediately returning to the team.
With 10 senior players opting out of that tour due to security concerns, despite the Pakistani Government assuring the visitors ‘Head of State’ level security, selectors were forced to look at the ‘next best option’.
A surprise 3-0 series sweep against the number one ranked team in the format, has now given the selectors ‘food for thought’ in regards to the composition of the team moving forward, de Mel said, with improved bench strength available to him and his committee of selectors.
“It was unfortunate that we did not have those players (for the Pakistan tour), but it gave the Selection Committee a chance to have a look at some of these new players and I see that as a good thing. These players have made use of the chance we presented them and have now given the selectors food for thought with their performances,” de Mel said.
“It also means only two or three players (of those who opted out) can come back into this team,” he added, a prospect that the players who opted out were aware of.
Among the now handful of players likely to retain their places is Lasith Malinga, who de Mel confirmed would continue captaining the T20I side despite Dasun Shanaka leading the team to a 3-0 series win.
Rajapaksa was the standout player in that series, having led the run scoring charts with 112 runs in three innings and included a knock of 77 off 48 balls, while Fernando contributed an impressive hand in the final T20I to help Sri Lanka recover from 58 for four to post a match-winning score of 147 for seven.
Wicket-keeper Minod Bhanuka also impressed, scoring 36 off 39 in the final ODI, though he could not match that effort in the T20 series.
“Earlier we had a problem (finding players) but now we have about 12-13 players who are fighting for six places, especially in the batting line-up. I was impressed by the fact that they took the opportunity we gave them. Bhanuka (Rajapaksa) and Osadha were making their T20I debuts, and they played out of their skins. We have watched these players but for them to come out and perform against the best T20 bowling attack in the world (was impressive),” he also said.
This may prove to be the answer to one of the biggest post-Cricket World Cup concerns, where Sri Lanka were stretched for quality middle order batsmen.
“The bench strength has improved which was one of the areas of concern for us when we came back from England after the World Cup. We made five changes for that last T20 and still they were able to win the game,” de Mel also said.
De Mel was also impressed by Wanindu Hasaranga, the leg-spinning all-rounder who was adjudged the Man-of-the-T20I Series, with eight wickets to his name.
“Wanindu Hasaranga is the most improved player over the last year, in all departments, and the confidence he's shown (is excellent),” the Chief Selector said.
Interim Coach Rumesh Ratnayake, meanwhile, was impressed with the quality of the performances in the T20I series, even if it came as a bit of a surprise.
“We knew (that even though 10 senior players opted out) the players we chose had to be the next best and from day one we inculcated in them that they are the best who are here, and we are playing against the best.”
“We knew we faced a huge challenge and our advice was that we had to compete. (Every player) was up to the mark and they performed beyond our imagination and excelled well. Everybody took their chance when they had it and they performed to the best and were free to do so too,” he said.
“Some of them we hadn’t even seen, like Bhanuka and Osadha, who we hadn’t seen in the T20 format. You can say we were surprised but we knew what talent they possessed and everybody spoke of them at some stage and they stood up and took the challenge and did excellently well,” Ratnayake added.