Why ODI series loss against India is a blessing in disguise for Sri Lanka

In Mahabharata, Parasuram cursed Karna that he would forget the execution of his skills at the moment of his greatest need. Looking at Sri Lanka’s ODI performances in India historically, it makes one wonder whether they suffer a similar curse, too, when playing in the country.

The year 2014 has been picture-perfect for the Lankan side, whose trophy cabinet has never been accessed as frequently as this year, hitherto. Sri Lanka’s fairy tale year includes an Asia Cup, a World Cup T20 (WC T20) title, a gold medal in the Asian Games, a Test series win against England in England for the first time in the history of the game and bilateral ODI series wins against Pakistan, England and Bangladesh.

However, all the hopes that were previously vested on the team to win the 2015 50-over World Cup has come crashing down after a humiliating drubbing at the hands of India in India. India in India is after all a different animal. While a defeat of such magnitude is nothing new to the team that has never won more than one match in a bilateral series in India, leave alone a series, it has definitely left the fans and, to a certain extent, the team completely shattered.

But do Sri Lanka really need to worry about the debacle? Would this series loss trouble their World Cup preparations? As former Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga said have Sri Lanka hit their lowest ebb at the wrong time that they can be thrown into a bin as not a favorite to win the title next year? Let’s take a look at the Emerald Isle’s performance this year and in the series against India and asses the side’s chances to win the marquee event.

Sri Lanka’s performances in 2014 – How their strength has turned into their weakness

There is one common trait in Sri Lanka’s successful campaigns in 2014, thus far. Unlike in the past, this team has not had a particular clique of players standing up to deliver wins. In each game, the side has had different heroes. When one fell, another rose. This worked well for them in WC T20 2014, with the likes of Kusal Perera, Angelo Mathews, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Lasith Malinga and Rangana Herath stepping up when needed.

Most of their wins were the results of attritional cricket and team spirit. Sri Lanka hunted down teams as a group. In more than one occasion, the Island nation has fought back to win when the match looked all but lost. Thisara Perera pulled Sri Lanka back from a precarious 67/8 against Bangladesh and Malinga placed a formidable barricade to humble Pakistan, reducing the men in green from 242-5 to 284 all out.

But, on the flip side, it has left them clueless about their strengths and weaknesses. They had different players raising their hand in different matches, and hence, they are now left with no idea about what the core of the team is. No player has performed consistently to be deemed as a reliable prospect in this Lankan line-up.

Indian series does not matter – It has always been that way

While a smug Russell Arnold tweeted, ahead of the series, saying that Sri Lanka have a very good chance of climbing up the rankings, no one else would have better envisioned the end result than Sangakkara himself, who led the side to a 1-3 defeat against India in 2009. Sangakkara immediately expressed his emotions on Twitter, castigating the board’s decision. Who better than him to know that playing India in India is like walking into a hungry lion’s territory wearing its most favorite perfume?

While even a thoroughly prepared Sri Lankan side has not done well in the past in Indian conditions, sending out a team that was in the middle of a fitness programme was, obviously, preposterous. Albeit some retired cricketers’ claims that match practice is better than net practice, it was very well evident that all what the Sri Lankan Cricket Board (SLC) wanted was money.

Mathews, speaking ahead of the series, played down his team’s chances, knowing fully well that life is not going to be easy. Yet, at the end of the second match, he turned too harsh on himself and the team calling the defeat as “embarrassing”.

The defeat would have definitely demoralized the team, which was once soaring with confidence. But, turning the pages of history, Sri Lanka would realise that their World Cup campaigns have been preceded by heavy defeats at the hands of India. They began their 2007 World Cup campaign with a 1-2 defeat against India. Prior to the 2009 WC T20, they had lost to India 1-3. The 2012 WC T20 was preceded by a 4-1 drubbing at home.

Sri Lanka’s performance against India in the recent times have been unbecoming. In short, it is not the Sri Lanka we are used to seeing.

With another 14 ODI matches to go in the build up to the World Cup after this series, the Mathews-led unit should not be too worried. A good series against England can put the Indian memories far back. Though stupid to say, Sri Lanka should look at this series as a coaching camp. Now, they know very well the challenges that lie ahead of them.

It is a reality check for a team that has been buoyant with an array of series wins. Victories often lead to teams not notice the glitches that lie within the machine. So, from Sri Lanka’s angle, this defeat will help them in a way now that the defective engine is exposed.

The team management needs to make sure that the mistakes are not repeated in their next assignment. They can afford to experiment with different combinations and can, then, take the most successful combination to the Kiwi land to test and fine-tune the machine.

Openers failing to build partnerships – Who pairs Dilshan at the top?

The team has been struggling to get a solid partnership at the top for a while now and has experimented with 4 opening combinations this year alone. The trend saw no change in the current series against India. Upul Tharanga struggled against a modicum of swing and seam, and Kusal Perera – who replaced him after the first ODI – has even failed to survive the first over, getting out to Umesh Yadav in all the three games, twice for a duck.

Jayawardene has publicly expressed his desire to open, but the selectors feel that it would leave the middle order, vulnerable in his absence, exposed. The 21-year-old Niroshan Dickwella, who is in the squad, may get a nod to play in the last game against India, at Ranchi. Sri Lanka should be relieved that they still have 14 games to rectify the issue, which is slowly but surely looming large enough to haunt the Island nation.

Batting Powerplay fiasco – Find a way out

The batting Powerplay has been Sri Lanka’s major source of worry, be it their own or the opposition’s. Sri Lankan bowlers have had no answers against the meticulous timing of the Powerplays by the Indian skipper. Even though Malinga’s return can alleviate the issue, how long can the captain depend on his premier bowler to deliver during the powerplays is a serious question. Sri Lanka may have to get their tactics and pre-match plans right, if they are to counter the Indian batsmen’s love for rage during field restrictions.

Sri Lanka’s use of the batting Powerplay has been diametrically opposite to that of India, with plenty of wickets falling during those 5 overs. The team is generally seen gaining momentum, only to collapse during this five-over period.

They will have to get the Powerplays working in their favour, than having it work against them, if they are to have any chance of reaching the knockouts of the World Cup.

Mathews and Co. must make the maximum use of the series against England. All experiments, at least most, should be brought to an end before the series and they should travel to New Zealand with a settled eleven. For a team that was flying high with a string of victories behind them, this series against India, which has clearly exposed their problems, has come as a reality check.

However, the conditions expected in Australia and New Zealand are vastly different from these flat beds, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they make it to the last four, provided they recover from this mauling, mentally.

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