Sri Lanka-Pakistan ODI series review

Batting the cause as Sri Lanka lose again

By Sa’adi Thawfeeq

How often have we heard the Sri Lanka captain remark ‘it’s our batting that failed us’ or ‘batsmen failed to take responsibility’ and so on that it has almost become a favourite theme each time the national team loses a series. Tillakaratne Dilshan was elevated to the position of captain early this year for the tour of England the same time former captain Marvan Atapattu was appointed batting coach of the team. After three Tests and ODI series losses to England, Australia and Pakistan the big question that has been surfacing each time Sri Lanka suffers a loss is the batting.

There is a limit to what a batting coach can do to a team, he cannot go out and bat for them. The rest is upto the batsmen to ensure that sufficient runs are put on the board to give their bowlers a total to bowl the opposition out or restrict them. That it has not been happening to Sri Lanka for three consecutive series going gives rise to a few pertinent questions that need to be answered by the team management.
Firstly, the poor run of form by the captain has not helped Sri Lanka in any way and this has had a great impact on the rest of the team. Dilshan is a player who can lead from the front with his bat or come up with a match-winning bowling performance or be outstanding on the field. When he is short of runs Dilshan finds himself in a position where he cannot inspire the rest of the team to perform well.

Since being burdened with the captaincy Dilshan has batted freely only in patches which is not helping the team at all. As opener he needs to build partnerships with co-opener Upul Tharanga so that there is no extra pressure exerted on the middle order. Failure to produce those opening partnerships has resulted in the team’s two most experienced players Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene having to play under pressure virtually all the time and as a result have not been able to play their natural game. This is a similar situation Sri Lanka faced in the late eighties and early nineties when the Lankan batting relied heavily on heavyweights Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva. It was after players in the calibre of Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana formed their deadly opening partnership that the burden on these two experienced stars eased and they were able to play their natural game.

The present combination of Dilshan and Tharanga is experienced enough to give Sri Lanka good starts but the fact is that they are not clicking together which has become a worrying factor. Why Sri Lanka overlooked the option of promoting Mahela Jayawardene to open with Tharanga and pushed Dilshan down the batting order is something the team management should have considered. Jayawardene has proved time and again that he can make big runs opening the batting because he is free to play his repertoire of strokes rather than when he comes to bat with two or three down for a paltry score where he has to first consolidate before trying to free his arms. By that time the overs have run out and by trying to force the pace loses his wicket rather needlessly. Also in this series he was batting with a knee injury and that may have hampered him from producing his best.
Sangakkara batted beautifully under pressure having to virtually play the role of opener. He looked the only Sri Lankan batsman who batted confidently in both forms of the game. The 191 runs (avg. 38.20) he scored in the five ODI matches going along with the 561runs (avg. 86.00) in the three Tests proves that he was the cornerstone of the Lankan batting.

The 4-1 margin by which Sri Lanka lost the ODI series to Pakistan is a true reflection of how the two teams played. It could have easily been 3-2 in favour of Sri Lanka had they not thrown away the third and fourth ODIs. On both occasions the lower order batting simply failed to finish the match. In the third ODI at Dubai, Sri Lanka collapsed from 186-4 to 236 all out to lose by 21 runs (72 runs were required off 63 balls by the last six batsmen) and in the fourth ODI at Sharjah they folded up rather tamely from 155-3 to 174 all out to lose by 26 runs (46 runs were required off 73 balls by the last seven batsmen).
The other disappointing aspect for Sri Lanka is that there young ’uns failed to grab the opportunity afforded them to cement their places in the senior side. Dinesh Chandimal was given Jayawardene’s position at no. 4 but he could not score more than 31 in one innings out of five opportunities. The same applied to all-rounders Jeevan Mendis and Thisara Perera who apart from their bowling must also chip in with useful contributions with the bat. Vice-captain Angelo Mathews didn’t get the runs required of him until the final ODI which by then the series had been well and truly lost.

To be frank Sri Lanka didn’t look the team that played in a World Cup final seven months ago. Missing was the enthusiasm and determination to win and one wondered whether the players were enjoying themselves in the middle which is quite evident with a consistently winning team.
What was missing in the Sri Lankan camp was displayed by Pakistan who knew exactly what they were doing out in the middle. They played the better cricket and fully deserved their 4-1 win margin. The return of all-rounder Shahid Afridi to international cricket from his self imposed retirement certainly lifted the spirits of the Pakistan team. His presence alone inspired the team to raise their standards on the field. Afridi certainly came back with a vengeance wanting to prove that at 31 he still had a lot of petrol left in his tank.

Afridi was forced into conditional retirement from the game following differences with Waqar Younis, then coach of the team, which led to former Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Ijaz Butt removing him from the captaincy of the one-day side in May. Only after Butt stepped down last month did Afridi come out of retirement and return to the side. Following his series clinching performance in the fourth ODI against Sri Lanka at Sharjah (75 runs and 5 for 35) Afridi stated, “There were a lot of challenges in front of me, a lot of things I needed to disprove. I accept those challenges. Actions speak louder than words and this is the time for action. Lots of things have been said, stupid things, but now is the time for cricket, I want to play cricket and be a cricketer.”

The Afridi of today is more matured and does not go on a full scale attack on the bowlers from ball one which has earned him the nickname of ‘Boom Boom’. He adjusts his game according to the situation and to his team’s needs which makes him even more dangerous than when he is playing strokes which gives the bowlers a chance to dismiss him. One area in which Afridi has improved vastly is his bowling where he is able to bowl his leg-spin and googlies on a teasing length that creates doubts in the batsmen’s mind.
Afridi finished the ODI series against Sri Lanka with 123 runs (strike rate 125.51) and 13 wickets (avg.15.30, economy rate 4.07) and with it pocketed the Man of the Series award. In some ways Pakistan must be thankful to its former cricket chief for it was his action that led to Afridi returning to international cricket with a vengeance; unfortunately it had to be at the expense of Sri Lanka.

Pakistan’s success of course did not centre only on Afridi, but there was certainly some eye-catching batting performance from young Umar Akmal supported by former captain Younis Khan and Imran Farhat. On the slow pitches of the UAE it was the Pakistani spinners who excelled overshadowing their fast bowlers. Afridi’s leg spin was supported by the off-breaks of Saeed Ajmal (11 wickets, economy rate 3.97) and Mohammad Hafeez (5 wickets, economy rate 2.95). They virtually strangled the free-scoring Lankan batsmen bowling with pinpoint accuracy.

Winning both the Test and ODI series will do a lot of good for Pakistan’s image as a cricket nation after being riddled by match-fixing controversies that led to three of its promising young cricketers being banned and jailed in the UK after being found guilty of spot-fixing in a Test match against England at Lord’s last year.