CW World Cup Countdown. Day 12 – Sri Lanka

As part of a series of articles leading up to the World Cup, Cricket Web presents a daily review on the background, players and prospects a specific competing team, starting with the minnows and building up to the favourites. Today we feature Sri Lanka.

The surprise champions eleven years ago as they came of International cricketing age in the subcontinent, Sri Lanka revolutionised one-day cricket. There will be no such shock if they repeat that feat in the Caribbean.

Leadup to the Tournament
Despite a series reversal in India in the last weeks before the World Cup, Sri Lanka’s recent form has been encouraging.

Traditionally weak away from home, the Lankans have visited England and New Zealand – two countries where subcontinental sides have suffered over the years in alien conditions – and matched, and often bettered, their hosts. In between times, they were scheduled to share a triangular series in India with South Africa, and then a bilateral series with the hosts, before security concerns and monsoon rains halted proceedings.

England were thoroughly embarrassed as Sanath Jayasuriya and Upul Tharanga devastated an erratic home bowling attack on the way to a 5-0 whitewash, before accumulating a world-record 443 at a Dutch stopover on the way home. New Zealand fared somewhat better than their Northern hemisphere cousins, sharing the series spoils, but were still on the end of a crushing defeat in Auckland as Lasith Malinga triggered a Kiwi collapse to 73 all out.

In between times, the Sri Lankans flattered to deceive in the Champions Trophy, first steamrollering their way through the pre-qualifying group as they brushed aside Bangladesh and Zimbabwe before thrashing the West Indies, having bowled them out for 80. The tournament itself was disappointing, however – a win over New Zealand cancelled out by a collapse to South Africa and a failure to defend 253 against an Abdul Razzaq-inspired Pakistan.

Despite the series defeat in India, ther were positives for the Sri Lankans – resting Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan, two bowlers with almost 1700 International wickets between them, they triumphed in the first match as their second string acquitted themselves strongly as they fought for seats on the plane to the Caribbean.

Players to Watch

Sanath Jayasuriya
The firecracker upon which the Sri Lankans’ 1996 fairytale exploded into life, Jayasuriya’s partnership with Romesh Kaluwitharana rewrote the tactics manual for ODI cricket. Whilst Kalu fell by the wayside inbetween times, this half of the partnership stood strong – and perhaps even stronger with experience.

Despite whisperings about his commitment to the cause as an on/off retirement script played out, Jayasuriya’s latest run of form traces back twelve months to the VB series in Australia, where his trademark batting inspired Sri Lanka to a surprise finals place before the might of the hosts won through. Able to shred a bowling attack almost at will, and particularly fond of the lacerating back-foot uppercut over point – often for six – the left-hander will be a prize wicket for every opposing side. If that wasn’t enough, he’s also mastered the art of speared-in left arm spin, turning himself into a genuine one-day bowling option with the small matter of 285 wickets to his name.

Kumar Sangakkara
Since the ascent of Adam Gilchrist onto the world stage, every side has yearned for an all-rounder with the gloves – a top-class keeper worth his selection on batting alone. Sri Lanka are one of the few sides who can claim to possess one. Equally at home standing back or up to the stumps, his experience against the guile of Muralitharan makes the record-breaking spinner even more threatening a proposition, and his sharp mind and tongue don’t make things any simpler – just ask Shaun Pollock.

With the bat he has the ability and unflappable temperament to either drop anchor or push the tempo, his straight blade disguising a scimitar beneath. The recent Test Series in New Zealand even required Sangakkara to play both the straight man and the aggressor, as the rest of the batting fell around him. If this evidence is anything to go by, the cauldron of the later stages of the World Cup isn’t going to burn Sangakkara – it will just bring him nicely to the boil.

Chaminda Vaas
Taking an hat-trick’s a pretty decent effort… but I’ve seen 12-year-olds do that. Taking one in International cricket isn’t bad… but Mohammad Sami’s done that. Taking one off the first three balls of an International – well, that’s special, and there’s only one man who’s done it. Chaminda Vaas reduced Bangladesh to the less-than-healthy position of five runs for four wickets after the first over in Pietermaritzburg during the last tournament.

A left-arm quickish medium pace bowler well-versed in cutters and away-swing, Vaas has led the Sri Lankan pace attack for the best part of a decade, and whilst he has proven less effective during the final overs of an innings than fans might have hoped, there have been few opening batsmen able to dominate him. Vaas’ task for the tournament will be to destabilise as many top orders as possible, and create a platform on which the Sri Lankans’ trump card can play ball.

Muttiah Muralitharan
As controversial as he has been successful, no amount of smears will ever be able to take away Muralitharan’s achievements with the cricket ball. An off-break turning more than many leg spinners’ stock deliveries, plus a doosra going the other way, make him a befuddling proposition for any batsman – as Simon Katich can testify – never mind a minnow tailender.

The only mark on Murali’s card – aside from his comic indifference with the willow – is a perceived unwillingness to bowl within the powerplay periods. Without a deep well of backup bowling, Mahela Jayawardene may need his star man to put this to one side during the World Cup should his side be crying out for control as they face a pair of settled batsmen eyeing up gaping holes on the boundary.

A top order comprising Jayasuriya and Sangakkara, plus the youthful flair of Upul Tharanga and the dependable excellence of Mahela Jayawardene, is a match for anybody on its day. With Chamara Silva, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Russel Arnold further down, Sri Lanka can boast batting in depth.

At the other end of the order, Vaas and Muralitharan would be welcome in any other International outfit. Combining 577 ODI caps, Sri Lanka have half of their new ball and middle-innings provision covered before Jayawardene even needs to think.

The remainder of the bowling attack, however, is not up to their leaders’ standards. Malinga Bandara’s inclusion as second spinner owes much to his energy in the field and versatility with the bat, while Dilshan and Arnold only provide utility spin options.

The discrepancy is more pronounced with the seam attack. Lasith Malinga is capable of delivering devastating, reverse-swinging yorkers at the death, but also of spearing the ball onto the batsman’s pads and away to the boundary. Dilhara Fernando possesses one of the finest slower balls in world cricket, but with it comes a no-ball problem that, like fellow seamer Farveez Maharoof’s, shows no signs of going away. With Vaas likely to bowl out long before the last rites of the innings, Sri Lanka could face trouble closing teams out.

Previous World Cups
Initially playing as a non-Test nation, the first four World Cups saw Sri Lanka record just one victory – beating New Zealand in the quiet surroundings of the County Ground, Derby, in 1983. The Australasian event nine years later saw them double their tally, defeating Zimbabwe and South Africa by three wickets apiece. Even after this improvement, no-one forsaw what would happen four years on.

Starting the tournament as 50/1 outsiders, Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana’s batting caught the other nations unawares and, lifted by their openers’ successes, the rest of the Sri Lankan side rose to the occassion. Winning their group undefeated (admittedly aided by Australia and the West Indies’ forfeiting rather than visit the allegedly unsafe Colombo), Sri Lanka made light work of England in the quarter finals, disposed of India in the last four and, carried by Aravinda de Silva’s unbeaten 107, defeated favourites Australia in the final.

They were unable to follow up their success as the tournament returned to England, finishing a disappointing fifth in their group, but – despite a shock defeat to Kenya in Nairobi – did well to reach the semi-finals in South Africa last time around, before eventual champions Australia exacted their revenge for seven years before.

1975: Group Stage
1979: Group Stage
1983: Group Stage
1987: Group Stage
1992: Group Stage (8th)
1996: Winners
1999: Group Stage
2003: Semi Final: Lost to Australia

Predicted Finish 2007
Group B contains a potential banana skin in the shape of Bangladesh, and India will also provide a stern test for the Sri Lankans’ World Cup hopes. However, their form, settled team balance and batting depth should provide them with the consistency to string together enough performances to allow them to figure in the later stages of the tournament. Whether they have enough back-up in the bowling department to continue their run when the trophy is on the line during the knockout phase, however, is another question entirely. Eliminated in the Semi Finals

Mahela Jayawardene (captain), Sanath Jayasuriya, Upul Tharanga, Kumar Sangakkara (wicketkeeper), Marvan Atapattu, Chamara Silva, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Russel Arnold, Malinga Bandara, Farveez Maharoof, Chaminda Vaas, Nuwan Kulasekara, Dilhara Fernando, Lasith Malinga, Muttiah Muralitharan

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