Sri Lanka fans, look away now. What’s that? You already were, even after the rousing dogfight of a win over Afghanistan… Okay, well, these are tough times, so that’s understandable. But up next is an opponent that Sri Lanka have never beaten in World Cup competition. Yes, that’s right. Against Pakistan on the biggest one-day stage, your team’s record reads: played seven, lost seven.
It is not much better in Champions Trophy encounters either (one win in four). Only a couple of years ago, just a few miles along the M4 in Cardiff, Sri Lanka were sucker-punched by Sarfaraz Ahmed’s team in a match that was effectively a quarter-final. Pakistan went on to win the tournament; Sri Lanka started handing around the captaincy like a prize at a raffle.
Dimuth Karunaratne is the sixth different man to lead the team in ODIs since Angelo Mathews in that tournament. But while he might be on what is politely known as a hiding to nothing over the next few weeks, there are tentative signs that Sri Lanka have more competitive spirit than was generally ascribed to them after a supine 10-wicket thrashing at the hands of New Zealand in their opening game. Lasith Malinga kicked some teacups around before the Afghanistan match and Sri Lanka’s bowlers got stuck in amid the damp conditions in Cardiff.
The British weather has often been cause for a little shiver (or an extended one, accompanied by a call for another layer) among touring Sri Lanka teams. The hands are cold, the senses dulled. When Kumar Sangakkara decided to warm up – figuratively speaking – for Sri Lanka’s 2014 tour, he chose to go to Durham, the country’s most northerly outpost, for a spell in county cricket. Suitably braced, he got himself straight on the honours board at Lord’s.
Durham’s head coach during Sangakkara’s spell there, Jon Lewis, is now the man in charge of Sri Lanka’s batting. Lewis has been in the job for just six months and in that time has worked with more than a dozen top-order batsmen, which is hardly ideal preparation for a World Cup campaign. After putting up scores of 136 and 201 in the tournament so far, there is clearly room for improvement but Lewis is phlegmatic about what can be done at this stage.
“I’ve seen a lot of cricketers in six months, which has been good in some respects, because it has been nice to see some young – and some senior – Sri Lankan cricketers,” he told ESPNcricinfo. “That’s given me a really good feel for the country and the players they have. Maybe a little bit more continuity, seeing the same people for a bit longer, we’d have maybe had more of a chance to make some progress. But we are happy with the players we’ve got and we’ve got to try and do our best to get a little bit more out of this batting group.”
Of immediate concern is the form of Mathews, former leader and the likeliest batting champion in this Sri Lanka side. Having been dropped in circumstances both unceremonious and acrimonious late last year, his return has so far seen him record one run and face 21 balls across three ODI innings – but faith in his enduring qualities remains, amid talk in the camp that he could move up to No. 4 against Pakistan.
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“Angie’s probably our most experienced player, and so far we’ve got very little out of Angie and Angie knows that,” Lewis said. “It’s fine, but it would be unrealistic to think we’re going to have a really strong World Cup and Angie was not going to feature too much. He’s going to have to give us a couple of strong performances. I’ve no doubt he’s got them in him and he’s working very hard to make sure they come out at the right time, and hopefully it’s going to be here at Bristol.
A collapse of dizzying proportions against Afghanistan, from 144 for 1 to 159 for 6, undermined Sri Lanka’s hopes of posting a daunting total, with Kusal Mendis and Mathews among those foxed by Mohammad Nabi’s non-turning offbreaks. Lewis suggested that the team had mentally switched off after a good start, while Karunaratne, who has attempted to set the tone with a couple of nuggety innings at the top of the order, was confident both players would come good.
“Our middle order comprises players who have experienced this type of situation before,” Karunaratne said. “Kusal Mendis scored well in the practice games and also in the South Africa series and failing in two matches I don’t think it has anything to do with his talent, he only needs a start to get going. Mathews is a player with a lot of experience and this sort of thing happen to players, however good you are. But with their experience, once they get going, you cannot stop them from scoring runs. I have plenty of faith in them and I think they will perform well against Pakistan.”
Sri Lanka may not arrive “ship shape and Bristol fashion”, as they used to say of the trading vessels that regularly departed from this port city, but neither have they been holed below the waterline. There was laughter and pats on the back at training on Thursday, while the team also sat in a huddle on the boundary’s edge afterwards, listening intently to the coach and captain even as the rain began to fall.
The British weather might end up doing them a favour on this occasion, too. If beating a Pakistan side buoyed by victory over England is beyond them, Sri Lanka could yet avoid adding to that aforementioned record of World Cup defeats thanks to the dodgiest of weather forecasts. Whatever the case, there is at least hope for better performances to come.
“Nobody feels too bad after a win,” Lewis said. “We know we could have played better [against Afghanistan], and in a way there’s a comfort in knowing we haven’t played our best cricket. We’ve had four innings in this tournament in two games and we’ve probably got one of them right. With that in mind, we’ve got a win from those sorts of performances, and if we start to put two innings in a single game together there’s no reason we can’t win a few more.”