The Sri Lankan One Day jigsaw puzzle
Sri Lanka are on the cusp of conceding a series whitewash in ODIs to South Africa and their rebuilding post the retirement of a few legends is going nowhere. Take for example the case of Dinesh Chandimal, one of their senior most batsmen in the ODI side. He accumulated just 62 runs across the three ODIs he played in the series. More than the runs, it was the manner and timing of his dismissals that stood out.
Chandimal, being a senior member, should have taken more responsibility in the middle overs, especially in the absence of Angelo Matthews. With Upul Tharanga opening the innings, the 27-year-old has a handful of youngsters batting around him. Instead of being the fulcrum around which the younger guys can bat, Chandimal has thrown away his wicket needlessly.
The right-hander is not alone. The whole Sri Lankan One Day unit has looked out of sorts since the retirements of Sangakkara and Jayawardena. Add to that the loss of Dilshan at the top and we have a pretty confused looking team.
Pathetic record in ODIs since World Cup
"We should be able to play under any conditions, not just at home," chief selector, Sanath Jayasuriya had said after Sri Lanka lost the 4th ODI of the series against South Africa.
"There's no point giving excuses or blaming our domestic structure after we lose a series. Your success depends on how fast you adjust to these conditions but sadly we have taken too long to do that."
Jayasuriya might be right in stating that Sri Lanka haven't adapted well in South Africa. But his feeling that Sri Lanka have been doing reasonably well at home is puzzling. Since the 2015 World Cup, three sides have toured Sri Lanka for ODIs - Pakistan, West Indies and Australia.
While Sri Lanka won 3-0 against West Indies, they lost 3-2 to Pakistan and 4-1 to Australia. This kind of results at home is poor for a nation which boasts of making the World Cup finals twice in a row( 2007 and 2011).
Dissecting the issues
There are too many issues with the ODI unit at the moment which means discussing them would involve putting the whole team under scrutiny. However, a start is by splitting the problems down into groups and checking for solutions.
A) Lack of good seamers
Sri Lanka are struggling to unearth quality fast bowlers from their domestic programme. This is true even for Tests and T20s. The fast bowlers in South Africa for the ODIs include Suranga Lakmal, Lahiru Kumara, Nuwan Kulasekara, Vikum Sanjaya Bandara, Lahiru Madushanka and Isuru Udana.
The fact is that out of the 6, only Lahiru Kumara has shown promise. Lakmal is Sri Lanka's top wicket taker in ODIs since the 2015 World Cup, but his average and strike rate have not stood out, as expected from the leader of a pace attack.
Kulasekara is an old war horse but seems well past his prime and Bandara and Madushanka are largely untested although the latter found some good pace in the last ODI. Udana, meanwhile, is at best a T20 bowler with a lot of varieties.
Solution: The solution may be simpler than expected when Angelo Matthews returns to handle the middle overs. Sri Lanka could stick with Lakmal, Madushanka and Kumara but Kulasekara and Udana need to go. Dushmantha Chameera, Nuwan Pradeep and Shaminda Eranga could be able back-up bowlers, when available, although Pradeep hasn't had much success in the One Day team.
The return of Lasith Malinga is much awaited and once that happens Sri Lankan fans can be more relaxed.
B) Problem of plenty with openers
Sri Lanka do have quite a lot of batting talent coming through but most of them seem to be top order batsmen. In the last ODI they played, Upul Tharanga and Nirosha Dickwella opened. But Sandun Weerakkody and Dhananjaya de Silva who played in the middle order are also openers.
Even a quick scan through their reserve list of batsmen reveals a plethora of top order players - Kusal Perera, Kaushal Silva and Dimuth Karunaratne, all of whom are openers.
Solution: Tharanga played a blinder, opening the innings in the fourth ODI. He has had quite a lot of success opening the innings for Sri Lanka in the past. But moving Dickwella from the top may not be ideal given his current good form.
Tharanga, meanwhile, had reasonable success as a finisher in a few matches since the World Cup. Sri Lanka also lack some experience down the order and moving Tharanga down to no.5 or 6 could reap rich dividends.
Dhananjaya de Silva, who blasted the Aussies at home was suddenly moved out of the opening slot, which is puzzling given his success at the top in domestic cricket. He could slot in with Dickwella at the top and Lanka can have Kusal Mendis at 3 with Chandimal and Tharanga following.
C) Puzzling selections
Jayasuriya, the chief selector spoke about issues away from home but the selection panel under him made some strange choices in recent times. For the Tests in South Africa, Sri Lanka opted for Kusal Perera at no.3. Given his wham-bam style of batting, it was a curious choice in a crucial batting position.
Perera, as expected, failed to do anything of note other than slashing at wide deliveries which inevitably found the edge. But it got stranger when he was dropped from the ODI and T20 team for his lack of form in Tests. His aggressive style means that he is more suited to the limited over formats. The wicket-keeper batsman is also Lanka's second highest run scorer since the 2015 World Cup in ODIs.
Another case is that of 18-year-old Avishka Fernando picked for the ODIs against Australia. A duck in his debut match meant that he was promptly dropped and never reconsidered, which is confidence denting for a young lad. Similarly, Amila Aponso, a left-arm spinner, was dropped after some decent performances.
Instead a bunch of spinning all-rounders in Sachith Pathirana, Chaturanga de Silva, Seekuge Prasanna and Jeffrey Vandersay have found favour. While Vandersay and Pathirana possibly deserve to be there, the other two are puzzling selections ahead of a proper spinner like Aponso.
Solution: Sri Lanka seem to have fixated on Lakshan Sandakan as their main spinner in ODIs. He has given enough reasons to be retained in the role for the Champions Trophy.
Aponso could be picked as the backup spinner in the Champions Trophy squad. They really do not need more than two mainstream spinners in England with Dhananjaya de Silva and Sachith Pathirana more than capable of chipping in.
D) The lack of fast bowling all-rounders
Sri Lanka seem to have concentrated too much on finding the right spinners that they have forgotten what a fast bowling all-rounder can do. Thisara Perera and Angelo Mathews did a great job for Sri Lanka in their prime in the past.
But with Mathews losing a lot of pace and suffering frequent injuries, he may not be a feasible option as an all-rounder anymore. Perera, meanwhile, has been overlooked for some time now and his way back in seems to be complex.
There was Dasun Shanaka, who put in some very good performances in the Tests against England and is pretty good with the willow. He also has some scintillating knocks to his name in the domestic circuit. Although picked in the squad many times, he hasn't been given a consistent run in the side.
Solution: Asela Gunaratne is used in the current One Day side as a stop-gap relief for Matthews and he looks decent enough to be persisted with, although Shanaka could be a more effective option. They could also try a few from the domestic tournaments but with the Champions Trophy too close, someone who has already played for the national team might be a better option.
What the Champions Trophy holds
The One Day tournament in England is so close that Sri Lanka barely have space to try anything new other than stick with the squad members. But with their appalling show in South Africa, some changes are inevitable and the likes of Shanaka and Aponso would bring in some much-needed freshness.
Sorting out the right batting order should also be high on the agenda of the coaching staff. Given that they have some pretty decent batters going around, it shouldn't pose much of a problem. However, temperament and consistency is an issue and Sri Lanka need to work on it to produce better batting displays than the three scores below 200 in the four ODIs here in South Africa.
In the pace department, Lakmal, Kumara and Madushanka should be picked although Kulasekara could still be in contention given that the Champions Trophy is in England, where swing bowlers flourish. Pradeep, Eranga and Chameera could push the players in the 15 once they are fit.
Overall, Sri Lanka do have the resources to make a decent team but they are either being underused, improperly used or overused. A switch in selection strategy and right grooming should see the Lankans back in the mix at the top of the ODI rankings.