Trying to Understand the Failures of Sri Lankan Cricket
By Aman Huda
Four years ago, in 2014, Sri Lanka, arguably the strongest and most dangerous T20 side in the world, beat favorites India in a low scoring final in Dhaka in the 2014 World T20. Two years prior to that, Sri Lanka had already proved their T20 dominance by making the finals of the World T20 in 2012 in their home country. Go back one year, they proved their worth in the one-day format by reaching the semi-finals of the ICC Cricket World Cup. Within this time period, Sri Lanka held treasure to two of the greatest batsmen of the modern game, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena. Their bowling line-up was just as skillful with the likes of pacers such as Lasith Malinga and Nuwan Kulesekara, and test heroes and legendary spinners Murali Muralitharan and Rangana Herath.
However, recently, Sri Lankan cricket has been taken as a joke. Their records in the last few years away from home are filled with batting collapses, grades of poor fielding, and line-ups with rather unskilled bowlers. In the last few years, they’ve failed to make the finals of the Nidhas T20 Trophy at home, lost 2-1 and 3-0 in limited overs series away in India, lost a One-Day series 5-0 and a T20I series 3-0 to Pakistan, lost 3-2 in a One-Day series to Zimbabwe, and the list can continue. Their record in test cricket is actually much better, registering series wins against the likes of Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, South Africa, and Pakistan, and drawing 1-1 away in the West Indies.
So what’s causing this major shift between limited-overs cricket and test cricket for Sri Lanka? Well the first major thing to note is that the Sri Lankan batsmen have relatively stayed the same in all the formats. There’s only a handful of batsmen which only play one of the formats and not all three for Sri Lanka. Therefore, the problem for Sri Lanka is not the skill of the batsmen, but rather their mentalities.
In test cricket, the batsmen have practically unlimited time to learn the bowlers, understand the conditions and the ball movement, find which shots suit them best, and go on to publish larger scores than they would in the limited overs formats.
The problem coming into the shorter format is that the batsmen come under pressure to perform quicker, score runs quicker, thus leading to mistakes and the faster fall of wickets. This can be reflected by the team’s total scores in One-Day cricket, including 244-8 (50 overs) and 193 (34.3 overs) vs South Africa, 157 (32.2 overs) vs Bangladesh, 278 (48.1 overs) vs Zimbabwe, and an average of 176 runs across five matches against Pakistan back in October of 2018.
In home matches, the batting massively improves, but when away, the team cannot always rely on possible excellent bowling to save them, and need to learn to be more confident when playing shots, finding the gaps better, and at least trying to find more singles rather than surviving dot balls.
Speaking of the bowling, unlike the batting lineups, the bowling lineups are actually quite different in the limited overs formats from the test formats. After the likes of Murali Muralitharan and Lasith Malinga have past their primes, the limited-overs sides have been struggling to find experienced bowlers and have had to rely on young and inexperienced bowlers. However, in the test format, seamers like Nuwan Kulesekara and spinners such as Rangana Herath continue to excel in the game. Now once these bowlers pass their prime, it will be interesting to see how Sri Lanka copes with it.
Overall, Sri Lankan players do have the skill to excel, but they have trouble translating it into limited overs cricket. At home, Sri Lanka can dominate in any format, but away, in limited overs cricket, the batsmen feel kind of lost and struggle to find their true game. However, the Sri Lankan cricket board need to continue to work on and improve the youth domestic system, as once the current Sri Lankan players pass their prime, they wouldn’t want to have to field an inexperienced side again.