The tranquil nature of Dunedin in the South Island of New Zealand is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Colombo. But it is a city that Sri Lanka have been in twice over the last month in a country they’ve been in for nearly two months now. In this serene home away from home, Sri Lanka lay in wait for another week, watching the 2015 World Cup unfurl, to continue their tortured campaign. It is a gentle city but one that hasn’t been kind to the Sri Lankans. Having had New Zealand 95 for 5 in their second last game at the University Oval, they ended up conceding 360. Having had Brendon McCullum out for a duck in the next game they still lost by 120 runs. The professionals that they are, Sri Lanka would have not been complacent, yet they would have been hoping for a less vexing affair against the Afghans to get their World Cup march back on track.
On an overcast Sunday (February 22), Sri Lanka won the toss and Angelo Matthews sent the opposition in. Afghanistan’s top-order frailties in their previous match and the record at the ground supported this move. It was an opportunity to get his main weapon in Lasith Malinga to settle into his spell and perhaps pick up a few quick wickets. The idea from Sri Lanka was clear. Bowl out the opposition in quick time and finish the chase quickly to boost their net run-rate along with it. This was perhaps the theme to Sri Lanka’s faux pas through the day, expecting the cricket to be calculable and facile.
Malinga ambled in for his first spell. His is a career erected on exploits with the older ball and not the new cherry. And yet there was much for Malinga to extract from his opening salvo. It was an opportunity for him to get miles under his belt as he searched for his best form. However, a belly that can be best described as an over-extension of Christmas festivities, and an ankle he cannot as yet drive his awkward action through, contributed to a feeble first attempt. And in truth, he never left third gear all day. Figures of 3 for 41 hide the fact that the 58 deliveries Malinga bowled were far removed from their former lethal selves. He landed one yorker in four attempts and did not appear to trouble the Afghanistan batsmen all day. For their part, the Afghanistan top order played risk-free cricket but they were never under any real threat either. If Sri Lanka were hoping for cheap wickets to bolster their spearhead’s confidence, they were in for a rude awakening.
Suranga Lakmal has easily been Sri Lanka’s best bowler in the World Cup so far. But even he, tailor-made for the conditions on offer at the University Oval, failed to pose any menace. Afghanistan enjoyed a fair bit of luck as well, with Mahela Jayawardene dropping a chance at second slip off Lakmal and a few edges going down to third man and fine leg. The lines and lengths were decent, but Lakmal, like Malinga, lacked the level of intensity that is needed to trouble batsmen at the international level. Afghanistan may have been playing only their second World Cup game ever, but they are a team that pride themselves in not taking a backward step. Here, they weren’t even being asked to do that.
The bowling and fielding struggles may not have been reflected by a deluge of runs as it did with New Zealand a week ago, as Sri Lanka had Afghanistan 40 for 2 inside 10 overs. But even the wickets that fell were more due to errors on the part of the batsmen than bowler induced, as Nawroz Mangal mistimed a drive to short cover and Javed Ahmadi misjudged a pull to midwicket. The grind continued with Thisara Perera, who was picked ahead of the out-of-form Nuwan Kulasekara, as the inconsistent lengths that have haunted him throughout his career showed no signs of abiding. As ever though, Angelo Mathews could count on Rangana Herath for consistency if not penetration. Herath is a vital part of Mathews’s arsenal but is not a prominent wicket taker in the shorter formats. For Sri Lanka to balance their attack’s lack of wicket-taking ability, this must change at some point in their campaign.
When you contrast this to how hostile an opening spell Sri Lanka received, the difference was striking. If questions marks still remained over Afghanistan and the Associate nations belonging in the World Cup , Jayawardene’s post-match comments comparing the attack as on par with the top nations, should put them to bed. It was high praise indeed from a man who had just scored a hundred against them with relative ease. The two Zadrans, Dawlat and Shapoor ensured Sri Lanka’s hopes of cantering to the target of 233 were but a delusion. Lahiru Thirimanne and Tillakaratne Dilshan would struggle to survive the two deliveries they received on the best of their days. Then Hamid “Rambo” Hassan bowled a snorting delivery from around the wicket that clean bowled Kumar Sangakkara with sharp movement. Sri Lanka were suddenly 18 for 3 and soon 51 for 4. Afghanistan were playing a spirited and passionate game that was reminiscent of a young Sri Lanka 19 years ago.
Having dozed on the field for most of the first innings, Sri Lanka were pricked into life by as hostile a spell of quick bowling as they had faced all through their New Zealand tour. Jayawardene and Mathews deserve some praise for the way they resurrected the innings, with calmness that only experience brings. Mathews later admitted that he had struggled to time the ball, which put his innings in context and showed how far his batting has come. But this erudite approach evaporated when he needlessly ran himself out with Sri Lanka within touching distance of the total. Jayawardene then unfathomably guided a short delivery to deep third man.
Once again, Sri Lanka found themselves in a hole – perhaps through complacency, perhaps through pressure. One thing was certain. This small city in New Zealand would test them to their limits. A Thisara Perera innings that mixed bravado and luck saved the game for them in the end, with Perera edging as many boundaries as he was hitting.
Sri Lanka finally had a win in Dunedin. But not before it had drained them of every inch of their resources. An impotent bowling performance was backed by a fielding effort that was devoid of buzz or energy. Run-out chances were created and squandered. These days, Sri Lanka negotiate the number of dropped chances as opposed to avoiding them. On the day they sold just one. For a side brimming with experience, the running between wickets was childishly suicidal. The batting was tested and held. Jeevan Mendis continues to be a selection enigma. Sri Lanka have not put the pieces of the puzzle together, they are still searching for them. The trial of Dunedin is over. They have been jolted by the realities of cricket. You may be a World Cup winner and your opposition may be playing in their first tournament, but there are no guarantees. This is a World Cup. Sri Lanka need to be better. This match was only half a step in the right direction.