Since the new selection committee took charge, there has been much speculation as to what the announcement of their first squad will behold. All sorts of rumour flew about. Some claimed that Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara were in line to feel Sanath Jayasuriya’s wrath after their treatment of him towards the end of his career, some claimed that Angelo Mathews was not going to get the Test captaincy and would see it pass over his head and onto the inexperienced shoulders of Dinesh Chandimal. When it finally came though, the the squad announced was quite a young one, with some seasoned professionals missing and some new names included. It is worth bearing in mind that this 20-man squad will be cut to 15 on the 24th of February.
The big news was that of the split-captaincy which had already been confirmed by the Sports Minister and Jayasuriya. The Test and ODI captaincy was indeed given to Angelo Mathews with Dinesh Chandimal being vice-captain in both formats. Perhaps more surprising was that Chandimal was given the T20 captaincy. The player himself admitted that it came as a surprise to him. At 23 years old it will be a big ask for him to captain the side and increase his modest batting average of only 14.83 (albeit a strike-rate of 97.26). I suppose there was nobody else really to be given this burden. Rangana Herath is in and out of the side, Kulasekera was never an option and Lasith Malinga would be too injury-prone, although this has not stopped him from receiving the T20 vice-captaincy at the expense of say, Thisara Perera whose presence in the Test squad is conspicuous by his absence. Even though Sri Lanka only face Bangladesh and Zimbabwe this year, Mathews and Chandimal will be well aware that they are taking the reigns from two of the greatest cricketers the island has ever produced. Even though Angelo Mathews has been vice-captain for a while, the team’s two undisputed leaders have been Jayawardene and Sangakkara and the new partnership will have to implement their own identities on the team and back each other in the same way as Mahela and Sanga have. They must also be given time to do so by the new selection panel who have gone down the path of young and inexperience in their first squad announcement. It is also the duty of the SLC board to ensure that Mathews and Chandimal don’t have to endure the interference from above and outside influences that previous captains have become exasperated with.
In his first press conference as captain, Angelo Mathews said of the provisional squad:
We need to start giving the youngsters an opportunity, and a series against Bangladesh is a good one to give one or two new players a place,” he said. “Players like Kithuruwan Vithanage and Ashen Silva have been making runs in domestic cricket, and Jeevan Mendis has also scored well recently.
Absent from the squad are Thilan Samaraweera, Tharanga Paranavitana and Prasanna Jayawardene. Samaraweera has had a decent start to the Sri Lankan domestic season but will spend most of the summer in England playing County Cricket with Worcestershire (weather permitting). Prasanna Jayawardene is considered the best gloveman in Sri Lanka if not the world, but with Dinesh Chandimal due to be given the gloves in the Test series, perhaps the selection panel have decided to go with someone who will contribute more often at the top of the order with the bat. Backup will be provided by either Sangakkara or Kushal Perera, who impressed in his brief appearances in the T20s against Australia. Paranavitana’s omission has not really come as a surprise since Dimuth Karunaratne took the second opening spot from him against Australia and showed decent temperament especially in the last Test to warrant him being given another go. Oddlyenough, the panel have opted to stick with Ajantha Mendis and Suraj Randiv. In my opinion they have been found out at the top level, and success against Bangladesh should not obscure this fact.
So lets look at the new faces in the Test squad. Jeevan Mendis has played 30 odd ODIs and 14 T20s but has yet to make a Test appearance. Although statistically he appears decidedly average, his impact in the limited overs cannot be taken for granted; coming in down the order he has often injected new life into an innings when needed, and sometimes acted as the finisher. He can bowl tidy but sometimes expensive leg-spin and is an excellent fielder. In his last first-class match he scored 206 off 234 in the first innings for Tamil Union against Colombo Cricket Club which no doubt ‘sealed the deal’ in terms of his inclusion in the Test squad. Mendis’ Tamil Union teammate Ashen Silva was a surprise inclusion. He averages 53.46 in First-Class matches, but so far in the domestic season, his highest FC score is 48* which came against the Sri Lankan Port Authority (SLPA). Silva is a left-handed opening batsman but will probably have to make do with being backup to regular openers Dilshan and Karunaratne.
Another Tamil Union player in the provisional squad is Kithuruwan Vithanage who has impressed in the two First-Class matches that he has played in this season, which belies his average of 39.18. He scored 85 in Tamil Union’s last match against the Colombo Colts (the same match in which Jeevan Mendis scored 206*), and in the previous match against the SLPA he scored 122 in the first innings, coming in at 6. He is considered an all-rounder, but his leg-spin has not really been utilized in his career and I doubt that should he make the Test squad, whether it will be as an all-rounder.
Nondescripts paceman Dushmantha Chameera is another surprising inclusion but will more than likely be cut when the list is trimmed. He has only played 4 first-class matches and has 4 wickets at an average of 71.75 which suggests at 21 years-old he is the sort of player who could go either way. But it is a sign that the selection panel are trying to look to new fast bowling prospects with Dhammika Prasad being too erratic, expensive and injury-prone. The same could be said about Nuwan Pradeep who the panel have stuck with, hoping that his experiences in Australia will have been a learning curve for a bowler who is thought of highly in Sri Lankan cricket. I do not agree though with the dropping of Suranga Lakmal. I do not know whether he is injured or not but in my opinion he is without doubt the most promising bowler in the setup, and has the ability to move the ball off the seam and in the air somewhat more consistently than any of the other bowlers, barring perhaps Welegedera. Chameera might not make the full squad but his Nondescripts teammate Tharindu Kaushal was considered a sure thing for this squad. His right-arm off-break has taken 19 wickets in 2 FC matches at an average of 8.89. 12 of his wickets came in his last match against Chilaw Marians at the expense of just 91 runs.
With the apparent inexperience of the new players selected, some of the other young players to have done well in the first two rounds of the Premier League Tournament could be forgiven for wondering why they were overlooked. Nondescripts’ Angelo Perera was thought to have been certain to join Tharindu Kaushal and Dushmantha Chameera in the squad following 307 runs in his two matches (120 vs Kurunegela Youth and 27 & 100* vs Chilaw). He averages 153.50 this season and a strike-rate of 117.62. For a 22 year-old he is quite experienced at First-Class level, having played 35 matches already and has a healthy average of 48.29. Form and injury permitting, he might just get his chance later in the year against Zimbabwe. Another batsman who has been in form is Port Authority’s 23 year-old Ashan Priyanjan but almost all of his 265 runs came in their last match against Kurunegal where he scored 235. Saracen Sports Club’s 19 year-old wicket keeper-batsman Lasith Abeyrante also hit runs in his last match, scoring 131 and 124* against the Burgher Recreation Club.
There is always the caveat that this is ‘just’ Bangladesh we are up against, and for all the fresh young faces that will be on show, they won’t have any more Test cricket this year (apart from a desultory tour of Zimbabwe in October) to show what they can do. In the press conference, Angelo Mathews outlined his ambition to climb the ICC rankings.
My main ambition now is to see the Sri Lankan cricket team in the top three in the next few years…We’ve dropped down to sixth place in Tests and fifth in ODIs. It won’t be easy, and it will take some time. Myself, Chandimal and the selectors will have to work closely to achieve that.
Having said all that, there has to be five players still to cut from that squad, and the chances are those five will be Chameera, Ashen Silva, Vithanage and one of Kushal Perera and Tharindu Kaushal, If it were up to me, I would cut Ajantha Mendis, Suraj Randiv, Chameera, Ashen Silva and Nuwan Kulasekera. Regardless of who makes their debut in the first Test, 2013 is not going to be a year of much revelations given that there are no Test matches against top quality opposition. So it is up to the panel to push forward the inclusion of younger players who are in form in the domestic tournament and just hope that a generation isn’t lost and the older players aren’te t disillusioned and complacent come December when Pakistan will provide some stern Tests of what the selection panel and the new captaincy system has achieved in their first year or so in charge.