By Michael Roberts –
Four huge ‘sequoia trees’ stood astride the path to the Champions Cup at the commencement of the tournament: South Africa, India, Australia, England. But, as I write on Sunday night 11th June, a combination of English rain and good cricket from the minnows has felled Australia as well as that outsider prospect, New Zealand; while the Safs and Indians are battling for one semi-final spot – an outcome that will knock one of them out.
My focus here is on the factors that have given Sri Lanka a 50/50 chance of making it to the finals after they snuffed out India on Friday last with a commanding batting performance. Two sets of factors assisted Sri Lanka: (A) fortune; and (B) strategic choices and good tactics.
Luck played its part in their victory. Misfortune can help one on occasions. Two stokes of misfortune were immensely helpful. Upul Tharanga was ruled out because of the team’s combined effort in marshalling a monstrous over-rate in their first match; while Chamara Kapugedera, a batsman with a questionable record over the long run and even perhaps of late (?), was ruled out by a hamstring injury. This opened the door for the insertion of Danushka Gunathilakha and Tisara Perera.
This provided captain Angelo Mathews (back in the side after injury and replacing Seekkuge Prasanna) with two bowling options to support the medium-fast trio of Malinga, Pradeep and Lakmal and the dibbly-dobbly deliveries of Asela Gunaratne. In parenthesis, one can note that the selection of Lakshan Sandukan as chief spinner has burdened the tour selection committee because his inclusion with the best three pace-bowlers would mean a batting XI that has bunnies at Nos. 8, 9, 10 and 11 – unless one inserted Kulasekera instead of one of the paceman. With Mathews’ capacity to bowl in doubt, Tisara Perera replaced Prasanna as bowling allrounder and Danushka Gunathilakha took on the slow-bowling tasks with Gunaratne as back-up. Despite a past record that is more than ordinary (e/r = 5.69; s/r = 43.2; and av. = 41.00) Gunathilakha bowled 8 overs for 41 runs at an economy rate of 5.12. Between them Gunathilakha and Gunaratne in fact gave fewer runs than the three pacemen and Perera. Gunaratne also struck a major blow for Sri Lanka by winkling out Yuvraj Singh before the latter hit his straps. Such results could not be known before the match, but they vindicated the selection policy.
Sri Lanka’s touring think tank is perhaps made up of Graham Ford, Asanka Gurusinha, Alan Donald, Sanath Jayasuriya, Angelo Matthews and Ranjit Fernando. I have no inside knowledge on this point; but suggest that they would have had inputs on the choice of the final eleven players. However, besides the choices indicated above, there were vital decisions before play and during play – with the latter moments demanding quick decisive action that did not permit a committee to come into play. Let me run through important decisions taken during the course of the match.
B1. The decision to bowl rather than bat when Matthews won the toss was the initial strategic choice. I did not follow the lead-up to the game with its pitch report and, as Sharma and Dhawan piled up the runs, began to wonder about that choice. However, it seems that the assessments all round were a benign pitch. So, maybe it was an obvious decision; but, again credit should be extended where credit is due.
B2. The decision to open with Dhanushka Gunathilaka rather than Kusal Perara panned out well. Both are attacking batsmen like the other opener Dickwella (and have overall strike/rates at 91.34 and 89.66 respectively now after this match).
B3. The decision to place Kusal Janith Perera at No. 4 ahead of Mathews and Chandimal: a good choice in the end. What intrigues me is this question: if Mendis had got out before Gunathilakha would the ‘operational commander” in dressing room have sent a right-hand batsman in, either Chandimal or Mathews?
B4. As it happened, both Gunathilakha and Mendis followed each other to the pavilion in quick time (courtesy of risky running and brilliant fielding). However, Angelo Mathews and Kusal Perera steadily retrieved the situation till Kusal pulled a hamstring. The high command took the obvious decision by having Perera retire hurt – though I would criticize them for not doing so an over earlier.
B5. At this point the operational command room took a sensible decision and sent Asela Gunaratne in ahead of both Chandimal and Tisara Perera. Having seen him in the T20 matches in Australia and observed his capacity for improvisation all-round the wicket and his coolness under pressure, to me it was the best tactical choice, an obvious one (where Ganguly and Atherton revealed their lack of background intelligence). Tisara Perera may have a strike-rate of 110.57 in ODIs at international level, but his average is only 17.98. More vitally, his hitting zones are restricted and two-dimensional at best; while his average of 17.98 is far behind the 35.70 average that Gunaratne has mounted in admittedly fewer games.
Hats off then to the strategic and tactical decisions made by the high command, to Angelo Mathews for a cool and imposing hand in the crunch periods and for all the players for their outstanding commitment and combined efforts.