After a slow start against New Zealand in this ICC Cricket World Cup 2015, I am starting to like what I am seeing from Sri Lanka. True, since that heavy loss to the co-hosts on the opening day of the tournament Sri Lanka have played two of the less-fancied sides in their pool in Afghanistan and Bangladesh. And in the Afghanistan match it took an excellent partnership between Mahela Jayawardena and Angelo Mathews to haul the team out of trouble.
But a win is a win whether it is by 10 wickets or one wicket and the success against Bangladesh was a great statement of intent. With Lahiru Thirimanne, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Kumar Sangakkara all finding form in that match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the batting suddenly has a look that will appear ominous to opposition teams. Add to that the fact that opener Upul Tharanga has linked up with the squad, called up in place of the injured all-rounder Jeevan Mendis, and things on the batting front appear to be heading in the right direction.
It is tough on Mendis as no-one likes to see a player ruled out of a showpiece event like a World Cup, but as a spin-bowling all-rounder he was a square peg in a round hole in Australasian conditions and the addition of Tharanga, a player I said should have been included in the first place, gives the squad a much more balanced look, as well as a player with significant experience in this tournament over the years.
Having said that, the match against England has all the hallmarks of a danger game for Mathews’ side. Sri Lanka’s batsmen are better suited to Australian conditions because of the lack of swing – they can cope with the extra bounce on offer there – and so a switch back to New Zealand, especially with just two days between the Bangladesh and England matches is not ideal. On top of that, England are smarting after suffering two big losses against Australia and New Zealand, the second of them at the venue for Sunday’s match, and so they will be desperate to make amends. And after that disastrous start to the tournament with those back-to-back losses, they have finally got off the mark with a confidence-building win against Scotland.
I have no doubt Sunday’s match will be won by the side that bowls best. England’s pace attack has question marks over it after those two big defeats but, in all fairness, Sri Lanka’s seamers have also struggled. A major positive from the action in Melbourne was the form with the new ball of Lasith Malinga. He looked much more like his old self, his bowling had some of that old zip about it and that is a great sign for a team that really needs him to fire.
I just hope Sri Lanka do not fall into the trap of placing too much emphasis on what happened when they played England at home late last year. Yes, Sri Lanka won that series 4-2 and that will provide the boys with happy memories, but that is all they are – memories – and they will count for nothing on Sunday in a match that will be played in completely different conditions. England struggled against spin in that series but in New Zealand conditions the effectiveness of the slow bowlers is likely to be much more limited. It needs to be the seamers who must step up, led by Malinga, and Sri Lanka must resist the temptation to play Sachithra Senanayake alongside Rangana Herath.
Left-armer Herath will provide the control and if more spin is required then Dilshan will be there to provide it. It may appear to the casual observer to be a match of little importance in the greater scheme of things as, all things being equal, both sides would expect to reach the quarter-finals whatever happens on Sunday. But I believe victory is important because the higher a side can finish in Pool A, the more likely they are to avoid defending champions India, who look set in my eyes to head Pool B.
I think Sri Lanka would fancy their chances against most sides in a one-off quarter-final but India, with their batting power, look an increasingly formidable outfit at the moment and appear a side that are best avoided if at all possible. MS Dhoni’s line-up are showing once again, as they did against us in 2011 and again in the ICC Champions Trophy in 2013, they have a liking for the big occasion and they appear completely different to the side that struggled in the Test series and one-day tri-series before this tournament.
A fourth-place finish in the pool may well mean a meeting with India and so victory on Sunday, which brings with it the prospect of third – or even second if Australia can be beaten in a week’s time – could be vital. And it is also achievable.
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