When the new selection committee tasked with picking Sri Lankan cricket squads was formed, the emphasis was very much on youth development and bringing in new blood following the tour to Australia. The home series versus Bangladesh was their first opportunity to do so and saw players like Kithruwan Vithanage and Angelo Perera make senior team debuts. The Champions Trophy was another opportunity to carry on this remit in an international competition along with the other Test playing nations. But it seems that the selectors have opted for experience over youth, citing the fact that SL are in a tough group with England, New Zealand and Australia (as opposed to the piss-easy group with South Africa, Pakistan, West Indies and in a format where every match counts. There is an argument that suggests that the Champions Trophy is what the World Cup should be. Short and sweet (allowing for the inclusion of some associates, of course). Nevertheless, despite its reputation as the tertiary international competition behind the World Cup and the T20 World Championship, it provides an opportunity for teams to win an international trophy and for Sri Lanka in particular a chance to ease some of the considerable pain caused by our various disappointments in finals which is still raw. There are also some rather dusty memories of the shared trophy with India back in 2002.
The announcement of the preliminary squad back in early April saw a 30-man squad that included plenty of fresh names. In addition to Vithanage and Angelo Perera, the likes of Shehan Jayasuriya, Ishara Jayaratne, and Milinda Siriwardena were the uncapped players who all had decent domestic campaigns. There were also some old faces from bygone internationals. Dilhara Lokuhettige last played in 2005 and at 32 years old was never really going to make the squad despite his hard-hitting capabilities. The spin department was bolstered by the inclusions of Seekugge Prasanna who last played in 2011 and Dilruwan Perera who last saw national team action in 2008. Thilina Kandamby and Farveez Maharoof were also in the squad following strong performances in the domestic season. The problems facing a lot of these ‘hopefuls’ is that if picked to go to England, most of them would have slotted into the middle-order in the batting lineup – a middle-order that already contains the established trio of Angelo Mathews, Lahiru Thirimanne and Dinesh Chandimal with perhaps Nuwan Kulasekera or Jeevan Mendis as well. The other major absentee is Ajantha Mendis whose mystery spin is not so much of a mystery anymore at the level of the opposition Sri Lanka will be facing.
With this in mind, nobody seriously expected to see any new faces in the 15-man squad which was named just the other day. They are as follows: Angelo Mathews (capt), Dinesh Chandimal (vice-capt), Tillakaratne Dilshan, Kusal Perera, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Lahiru Thirimanne, Jeevan Mendis, Thisara Perera, Lasith Malinga, Rangana Herath, Nuwan Kulasekara, Shaminda Eranga, Sachithra Senanayake, Chanaka Welegedara.
Upon the announcement, the main story was the recall of Chanaka Welegedera who had missed the Bangladesh series with an injury picked up in Australia and had been in rehabilitation with a view to taking part in the Champions Trophy. Welegedera is usually ever-present in the Test squad but has been in and out of the limited overs teams even taking away the injuries he suffered throughout 2012; the preferred pace-bowling attack tending to center around Lasith Malinga, Nuwan Kulasekera and Shaminda Eranga. Malinga and Eranga should be certain to make the XI that takes on New Zealand on the 9th of June in Cardiff (injury permitting), but Kulasekera’s place in the side is not as solid as it was through most of 2012, especially following a poor showing in the Test series vs Bangladesh. His ability to score quick runs lower down the order does go in his favour but with an already top-heavy batting line-up I would argue that Welegedera should get in ahead of him.
The other question is to whether Sri Lanka should play with one spinner or two. Our bowling attack is not one that will blow away teams consistently. Rather our strategy has been to squeeze the runs in the middle-overs by the combination of taking the pace off the ball and disciplined fielding. This has been the more underrated tenets of our limited overs strengths over the years, dating back to when Marvan Atapattu and John Dyson were at the helm. To this end, perhaps going with two spinners would be the way to go, but in English conditions going in with one less front-line seamer would be foolish. If the selectors choose to go with two spinners, they will have to take the decision as to which batsman they drop, that is assuming that Thisara Perera’s all-round abilities is too valuable to let go. Angelo Mathews is due a good performance with either bat or ball but as he is the captain he obviously cannot be dropped, neither can Chandimal who is vice-captain. This leaves either Lahiru Thirimanne or Kusal Perera. Thirimanne bats a good few places below his ability for my liking, but this is not likely to change with Sanga and Mahela in the side. Despite this, he has shown on occasion that he has the ability to score runs down the order when the pace has been taken off, and a clear head when the pressure is on. He has effectively put paid to Upul Tharanga’s chances of reclaiming his spot in the national side and the selectors must be careful to manage him better than Tharanga was managed at the same age. Kusal Perera is somebody everybody associated with Sri Lankan cricket is excited about. But his batting style is one that can fail as many times as it comes off and because of this he should be given a prolonged run in the side. But since the announcement of the squad there have been reports that Mahela Jayawardene could be in line to open alongside Dilshan, suggesting that KJP will be the one to make way for either a second spinner or a third seamer, with the keeping gloves most probably going to Dinesh Chandimal. If they go with the one spinner, I would opt for Senanayake over Herath purely for the reason that he has to be the future of the spin department, even though it has got to the stage now where going into a match without Herath causes the same uncertainties as when we used to go into battle without Murali.
Overall I’d say that this squad is a sign that Sri Lanka have put thoughts of building for the future to one side and are focusing on the task at hand. It might all end in tears but the intent is there for all to see – we’re in it to win it. My team for the first match vs New Zealand (injury permitting) would be:
KJP †, Dilshan, Mahela, Sangakkara, Chandimal, Mathews (c), Thirimanne, Perera, Senanayake, Malinga, Eranga.