A basement battle of sorts, between Sri Lanka and Australia, eighth and 10th on the World Cup 2023 points table, respectively, is something few would have conceived ahead of the tournament.
And yet here they are; a pre-tournament favourite and a side that tends to punch above its weight, desperate to open their account at the Bharat Ratna Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee Ekana Cricket Stadium here on Monday.
Both sides are coming off two successive defeats, one against South Africa each, and find themselves on the wrong side of history.
While Sri Lanka conceded the highest total against the Proteas in its opener, it saw Pakistan pull off the highest successful run-chase in the tournament’s history in the following game. Australia, meanwhile, faced its heaviest World Cup defeat against South Africa in its previous match here and has started a World Cup campaign with two losses for the first time since 1992.
In a blow for Sri Lanka, captain Dasun Shanaka, who was beginning to find form with the bat after a woeful string of scores, is ruled out from the tournament indefinitely due to a right thigh muscle injury and Chamika Karunaratne is likely to be slotted in as a like-for-like replacement. Kusal Mendis, in red-hot form, takes over the reins from Shanaka.
Though united in distress, Australia and Sri Lanka are on different ends of the spectrum. The Australians have witnessed their middle-order collapse like a pack of cards against quality seam and spin bowling, and are yet to breach the 200-run mark, while the Lankan bowlers are smarting a battering of over 770 runs in just under 100 overs across two games.
Their horizons converge in the middle-overs with the ball, a phase where they have lacked penetration so far in the tournament and allowed oppositions to wrest the initiative after conceding less than five runs an over in the first PowerPlay.
With conditions likely to assist swing and seam movement while the ball is new, a lot will hinge on how the first 10 overs pan out.
Sri Lanka had dropped pacer Kasun Rajitha to make way for spin ace Maheesh Theekshana but may want to accomodate the former on a seamer-friendly track. While Rajitha could replace Matheesha Pathirana, who has gone at more than nine runs an over in both games, Sri Lanka could also look to bolster its pace unit by bringing in Rajitha for Dunith Wellalage, whose left-arm spin has lacked bite.
Pat Cummins said on match eve that one of the few positives the team took from its drubbing against South Africa was its bowling at the death, during which its bowlers put the skids on the scoring by picking four wickets and conceding under eight runs an over. With the ball holding onto the pitch at the backend, the Australian pacers employed the cutters to good effect on a ground with large square boundaries. Interestingly, its death bowling in that game marked a significant improvement for Australia in an area it has been the most profligate in amongst all teams this year.
Sri Lanka, with a significantly less pedigreed pace attack, was shellacked for 137 runs against South Africa in the last 10 overs and Australia’s middle and lower-order firepower, which is yet to show up in the tournament, will look profit from this chink.
But before that, the Australian top and middle-order will have its task cut out. The line-up lacks stability at the top in the absence of Travis Head and a top-seven packed with six right-handers is short on variety. Josh Inglis’ selection against South Africa at the cost of left-hander Alex Carey further exacerbated that monotony.
Sri Lanka, on the other hand, has a judicious mix of right and left-handers. Mendis and the calm head of Sadeera Samarawickrama form a synergy between the top and middle-order, as was seen against Pakistan. However, Australian pacers will fancy themselves against opener Kusal Perera, who is yet to strike form after two years in the wilderness in ODIs.
In the spin duo of Glenn Maxwell and Adam Zampa, the Aussies also have the personnel to counter Sri Lanka’s variety. That part-timer Maxwell has outshone Zampa with the ball points to a separate issue that Australia must contend with.
Its pantheon of all-rounders has failed to contribute with the bat and, barring Maxwell, hasn’t been trusted much with the ball. While Cummins backed his all-rounders on Sunday and picked their batting as their primary skill, the likes of Mitchell Marsh, Marcus Stoinis, Maxwell and Cameron Green are yet to repay the faith.
Australia went on an all-format tour of Sri Lanka last year at a time when the island country was reeling from a debilitating economic crisis. While the gesture led to plenty of goodwill between the two sides, the resultant bonhomie will take a backseat on Monday as they look to salvage their campaigns.
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