I wasn’t sure what to make of that defeat last night at first. On one hand, allowing a side to chase a total like that after having been 0-2 is both jarring and embarrassing for a side that prides itself on controlling the innings and building scoreboard pressure through spin and tight fielding. On the other, my apathy for T20 cricket sort of had me chalking this up as an aberration. After all, we usually save up our one terrible bowling performance for finals. What was certain though was that losing that match was an odd experience and it took before I figured out why that was. It was because I realized that the reason for this was because it has been a while since Sri Lanka actually lost a match in any form of cricket (barring the match against West Indies in the warm ups). That was the first time SL had lost a match in Paul Farbrace’s tenure as head coach, and the first since that debacle in Sharjah against Pakistan.
This is not to say that a defeat like that has not been coming. All through the Asia Cup and even in the limited overs series against Bangladesh, the side have pulled off tense wins; key moments going in their way to allow them to snatch games from the fiery brink. Against the English, our luck ran out. ‘Live by the sword and die by the sword’ and all that, but a lot of credit has to go to Hales and Morgan for controlling a chase from such a precarious position. They were helped by us bowling an awful lot of filth as well. Mathews’ medium pace was always going to go. Thisara Perera hasn’t had a decent bowling performance in T20 cricket for years and barring a good showing against Afghanistan in the Asia Cup (3-29), hasn’t had one in ODI cricket for a while as well. Then there was Ajantha Mendis, who had one of those days where all his variations on a nagging length simply amounted to the ball simply popping up neatly to be swiped to any boundary of the batsman’s choosing. His 0-52 was his worst bowling performance in international T20s, and his conceding of 25 runs in the 15th over essentially brought the match into England’s grasp.
With the New Zealand match now more uncomfortable than anyone in the Sri Lanka camp would have cared to imagine, changes have to be made. Chandimal’s suspension for a slow over-rate has thrust one upon the selectors. His captaincy has kept his poor batting in the side, but with Lasith Malinga as acting captain, Sri Lanka can now chose someone who is actually in form. The problem with that is that the only in-form batsman who isn’t already in the side is Lahiru Thirimanne who in my opinion should not be playing T20 cricket. His T20 strike-rate of 114.48 is not what is needed in Chandimal’s batting position (which can be anywhere between 5 and 8). If we are to play Thirimanne, it should be as an opener with Kusal Perera, moving Tillakaratne Dilshan to his old position in the middle-order. Someone like Chaturanga de Silva would have been ideal as Chandimal’s replacement, but he was withdrawn from the squad when Rangana Herath regained his fitness.
Mendis’ position might be in trouble for New Zealand as well. Rangana Herath will offer a more orthodox sense of control and guile and Seekugge Prasanna can hit a long ball down the order. I suspect Sri Lanka will stick with Mendis and count on him coming good and New Zealand being unable to read him. Thisara Perera also should play but I think his position is the arguably the weakest in the side. He scored a useful knock last night and is always good for a quick 20 or so, but he does have a habit of conceding more runs with the ball than he scores with the bat. Granted his fielding is always plus but his bowling is still the same wayward, short, wide long hops that it used to be when he first came in to the side. His wickets are rarely bowled or lbw, and more attributable to batsman error which when up against players who are set and seeing the ball well, will rarely come off. He has a decent slower-ball, but aside from that has very little in the way of variation. I’d be inclined to bring Suranga Lakmal in to the side. Not usually considered a T20 bowler, Lakmal showed some decent control over his yorkers in the Asia Cup during death overs. He might still go for over 8 an over, but there will be less ‘gimmes’ than Perera’s bowling will provide. SL would lose out in terms of batting and fielding but against a New Zealand side packed with the sort of players who would take Thisara to the cleaners, I think playing Lakmal as a third paceman and pushing Kulasekera up the order to take Perera’s position as the lower-order pinch-hitter. It would also mean that captain Malinga could open the bowling with Lakmal and Kulasekera, with Mathews and either Mendis or Herath at first change, saving more overs for himself for the latter half of the innings.
My team for the Kiwis would be:
Kusal Perera, Lahiru Thirimanne, Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Angelo Mathews, Nuwan Kulasekera, Sachithra Senanayake, Ajantha Mendis, Suranga Lakmal, Lasith Malinga (c).