Sri Lanka: Simply red-hot or genuine contenders for the World T20?

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Can the Asia Cup be the foreshadowing of much grander things to come in Sri Lankan cricket?

(Sri Lanka Cricket)

Sri Lanka: Simply red-hot or genuine contenders for the World T20?

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Gantavya Adukia

09/16/2022

The Sri Lanka cricket team was cold for a long, long time, but all of a sudden they have awakened the beast within and put up perhaps the most spectacular hot streak of the summer, only behind England's Bazball shenanigans. There just seems to be one question now: do they dare to dream?

Sri Lanka's T20I record over the past two years does not make for pleasant reading. Ever since the old guard bid adieu with the likes of Thisara Perera and Lasith Malinga no longer featuring in the team, the Asian outfit has struggled to gain any form of consistency or rhythm. That is, until now. All of a sudden, they have scripted a complete turnaround in their fortunes leaving critics spellbound courtesy of some incredible performances. The way the team played in the recently concluded Asia Cup must have been beyond their wildest dreams and the players can take the credit for making anyone who bet on them proud. 

However, one can't ignore the humiliating record that precedes the triumph. Last year, Sri Lanka had to play the qualifiers in the World T20 for the first time and after a couple of scares, managed to get through to the Super 12s where they managed just two victories against a struggling West Indies and dismal Bangladesh. After the tournament, they have gone on to lose all three bilateral series by margins of 4-1. 3-0 and 2-1 respectively. In fact, the islanders have won just one of their last 10 bilateral series, that too against India in 2021; a second-string side, considering the first team was busy playing Tests in England simultaneously, with a stand-in captain who has not played a T20I since.

Yet, all of a sudden they have risen to a commendable eighth in the T20I rankings. Even though they still have to play in the qualifiers for the World T20, the side is ranked far above all other qualifying contenders except West Indies. Moreover, they are even ranked above Bangladesh and Afghanistan who have earned direct qualification to the Super 12s. Sri Lanka completely outplayed all their opponents in the Asia Cup and ended with a five-match winning streak. More importantly, they managed to beat a formidable India before crushing Pakistan twice in three days-- two of the favourites to lift the title in Australia.

Pointed logic dictates Sri Lanka should be seen as a genuine contender given the red-hot streak. But in the bigger picture, it would seem ridiculous given how bad the team's results have been for how long. Nevertheless, what the team has ensured that eyebrows will be raised whenever they take the field and the same question shall resonate amongst the experts and spectators-- how far can Sri Lanka go and do they dare to dream?

If they take the confidence of what they achieved in the last T20 World Cup and then now at the Asia Cup, I think they shouldn't be looking at anything other than going all the way and winning the World Cup. I mean that's the attitude to have and this is a group I feel that will play with that no fear and no extra luggage on them either so just go out there and enjoy their cricket and play.

Mahela Jayawardene

Going by their performances of late, the team certainly has the armoury to put up a proper challenge for the big prize. The management has succeeded in bringing together a solid core of players who have fought through relentless pressure time and again while still coming out unscathed on the other side. This Sri Lankan side has proven that it likes to play the big fixtures and take the game to the opposition. In fact, they almost seem to enjoy it. The side has emerged as a well-gelled bunch with a positive mindset instilled by their charismatic leader Dasun Shanaka. The players are not afraid to be bold, play their natural game and express themselves on the field. Sound like Bazball much?

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In Maheesh Theekshana, the Lions have a trump card up their sleeve. The young off-spinner has been taking the world by storm, excelling in the art of putting the batsmen under pressure. He might not fetch as many wickets as the team's primary strike bowler but the 22-year-old is the kind that generates wickets for others. His economy of 6.52 after 24 T20Is is no fluke but a deserved result of consistent bowling regardless of the conditions. The fact that he has Wanindu Hasaranga to bowl at the other end simply doubles the damage the duo would manage individually. 

Hasaranga excels in turning opportunities into wickets and rarely a game goes by where he doesn't dictate proceedings. The entire Sri Lankan bowling game plan is built around the legbreak's four crucial overs because it is in the space of those 24 balls where the Lions are most likely to win or lose a game. The 25-year-old has an astonishing 71 scalps in just 44 T20Is at an average of 14.74.

He is no slouch with the bat either as was evident in the Asia Cup final against Pakistan where he played a game-changing knock. Even in the 2021 World T20, Sri Lanka was left reeling at 8-3 against Ireland before Hasaranga came up with a flamboyant 71 off just 47 deliveries to win the game singlehandedly. Perhaps the all-rounder's most important trait is his attitude to be in the limelight and thrive in it. He is bred from the same mentality as a Ben Stokes or a Virat Kohli, replete with a killer instinct and providing his team with the intangible edge, the X-factor to triumph out of nowhere. He is definitely a shout for one of the best T20I players in the world, equivalent to the likes of Rashid Khan.

The team's top-order has shown its quality as well, with Pathum Nissanka scoring 173 runs at an average of 34.60 in the Asia Cup. even though Kusal Mendis ended with two ducks, his three innings before that read 57, 36 and 60. Crucially, the team has finally got together a fearsome middle order which will be crucial in the Australian conditions to ramp things up should the new ball trouble batsmen. Bhanuka Rajapaksa came of age in the Asia Cup, his 71 in the final an innings for the ages. The lineup is capable of exploding even when under severe pressure, as was the case in tight run chases against Bangladesh, India and Afghanistan before the unlikely outburst in the final took them from 58/5 to 170.

Speaking of their World T20 groupings and how they could play out, Sri Lanka face an amusing circumstance. Should they win all their qualifying games, as they are expected to given the opposition includes Ireland, Namibia and the Netherlands, the Lions will make a part of group A alongside Afghanistan, Australia, England and New Zealand. It is worth noting that Afghanistan was the only side that managed to beat them in the Asia Cup, while England managed a clean sweep the last time they played Sri Lanka in bilateral series. Australia and New Zealand made it to the finals last year and are expected to be even more lethal this time around given they will playing to their strengths in familiar conditions. On the other hand, the other round-robin cluster contains India, Pakistan and Bangladesh- three teams they have beaten of late and will have a significant mental advantage against. 

Regardless, it seems foolish to make any predictions about this Sri Lankan side, given their sky-high ceiling and a potentially distraught floor. It would fare better to simply sit back and enjoy the spectacle, considering the team is bound to entertain when they win and entertain when they lose. At the end of the day, they have a young soaring core with infectious energy, hardcore mentality and unbelieve form. Sri Lanka are definitely the dark horses of the tournament and if they manage to fight through to the semi-finals, it is anyone's game come the knockouts.

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