Sri Lanka came into the match against Australia largely under the radar. While Sri Lankan fans might disagree, the stories of the World Cup so far have been around the two hosts, Australia and New Zealand; the fall and fall and rise of Pakistan; AB De Villiers; totals of over four hundred; the associates.
Sri Lanka have been a distant side show that no one’s really taken notice of. Sunday (March 8) at the SCG was meant to change all that. It was hyped as a must-win match for Australia. A great rivalry in limited-overs cricket.
But being invisible had allowed Sri Lanka to pass unjudged on their tactics, particularly on the bowling front. False positives experienced previously had lulled the team into thinking that three frontline bowlers could take them deep in this tournament. On a humid day at the SCG, all of this came to a head as they were stripped naked, exposed and were left black and blue for the whole world to see.
On Sunday, they conceded 200 runs in the last 18 overs. Earlier, against England, they leaked 148 in the last 15. In the opening match against New Zealand, it was 102 in the last ten. Against the same opposition in a One-Day International in the lead up to the World Cup, it was 164 in the last 15. Facing India last year, they bled 235 in the final 20. The first three of those have been when Lasith Malinga played as well.
Malinga, it must be said, looked at his very best against Australia. Barring one bad over, searing yorkers showed up with regularity. But Sri Lanka have a problem with death bowling.
As this World Cup has shown, being plundered in the late overs is not a Sri Lanka-centric problem. But the deficiency in their bowling is largely down to the formation of their attack. Their dogged attempt to stick to their three-bowler policy was thrown into disarray as Australia, clinically first and later unabashedly, peeled away the curtain to reveal the ugliness and fallacy.
Sri Lanka played two spinners along with Malinga as their attack, with Thisara Perera, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Angelo Mathews, the captain, expected to contribute the rest of the overs. Seekkuge Prasanna is a decent bowler, but up against the modern 360-degree hitting capability of Glenn Maxwell, he was made to look more a high schooler. Earlier, Australia negated the two spinners, whom Sri Lanka clearly banked on to do what Daniel Vettori did for New Zealand against Michael Clarke’s side. But Australia are not a team that is easily fooled twice.
Steve Smith and Clarke took their time through the middle, going at no more than five runs an over. Mathews would have been happy. Happier still when both fell in quick succession. But the platform had been set for Shane Watson and Maxwell. When they set off, Prasanna had no answers, and Mathews had no bowlers to fall back on. He needed to save Malinga for the death. Sachithra Senanayake was leaking runs, so Dilshan and spin wasn’t an option. Perera was called in and chaos ensued.
Time and again Mathews has called on Perera to try and stem the flow of runs. Perhaps he believes Perera is a good death bowler. There is little evidence to suggest so. The big man is a good, length bowler, whose natural length happens to be just a little shorter than necessary. He is a fine option in the middle overs as the batsmen are looking to play risk-free cricket, like Clarke and Smith did, but he has a target on his back when it’s the business end of an innings. Sri Lanka’s 20 overs between Mathews, Perera and Dilshan netted 179 in 21 overs at 8.5 runs an over, 87 of those coming off Perera in nine overs. His last four cost 57.
In the previous match against England, Perera eighth over was plundered for 25 in a 44th over debacle. His seven earlier overs, which came before the 36th of the innings, had cost him only 26. Two games before the World Cup, against New Zealand, Perera’s last three overs – between the 38th and 48th of the innings – cost him 29.
Mathews’s continued use of Perera in the death overs now lies somewhere in the realm of insanity and calamity. Infuriatingly, the captain himself doesn’t believe there is anything wrong with the combination. “Our current combination has worked for us so far, so we don’t want to change a lot of things,” he had said before the SCG game. One would hope that the Australia game would reinforce the fact that no, in fact, it’s not working, and hasn’t been for a while.
What is the thinking behind the strategy? Do they believe they can chase scores of 350 or more with eight batsmen? On Sunday’s evidence, when up against top opposition, the answer is ‘no’. All of this is also shining a glaring spotlight on the Sri Lankan coaching staff of Marvan Atapattu, Chaminda Vaas and Rumesh Ratnayake. It seems, with all their experience, they are arriving at the same, alarmingly wrong, conclusions each time they work on the team formation.
His batsmen have shown Mathews that if the bowlers are able to restrict teams to reasonable totals, they will gladly galvanise for the hunt. But with three bowlers, his batsmen’s gallant efforts are for naught. The World Cup has witnessed the real Sri Lanka, and it hasn’t been pretty. The team needs to realise that.