A side with good balance

The Sri Lankan think tank. Skipper Mahela Jayawardene and coach Tom Moody in a discussion.-K. R. DEEPAK

The one significant advantage Sri Lanka has, going into the World Cup, is that none of its players are carrying injuries. The roster of casualties is long for other countries, particularly Australia, and for a side ostensibly loaded with geriatric men Sri Lanka isn't doing too badly, writes Vijay Parthasarathy.

The ageing Sri Lankan batting line-up looked as loose as a bad set of teeth in the series against India; nevertheless for a variety of reasons the islanders will fancy their chances of making the semifinals.

On current form, the relatively sprightly Kumar Sangakkara is arguably their best batsman, and it's a miracle that he has so far coped with wicket-keeping duties as well as he has. He is the pivot around which the innings is founded, and the Lankans have meandered when Sangakkara isn't there long enough to dominate, pace and guide the innings.

Others have looked less convincing. Upul Tharanga is going through a rough patch. Since knocking up consecutive centuries in the Champions Trophy he has crossed 50 only twice in 11 innings. Meanwhile his opening partner, Sanath Jayasuriya, 37, playing his fifth World Cup, remains as effervescent as ever.

His cuts and pulls will easily clear the short boundaries in the West Indies, and impervious fields may not curtail him. A century and a fifty from three matches in New Zealand earlier in the season should have set him up for a repeat of his heroics at the 1996 World Cup, but subsequently the Indians — in particular, Munaf Patel — cramped him and other sides will, no doubt, employ similar tactics. Sri Lanka's starts will hinge on how well the vastly experienced left-hander copes with consistent line and length bowling.

Sri Lanka's batting strength is concentrated in its middle-order. The classy Marvan Atapattu has batted lower down the order since his return earlier this season from injury. He has not crossed 50 in 15 innings, but if Tharanga's poor form persists he might be shunted upwards to perform a role that he is admittedly suited to — 10 of his 11 centuries have been compiled at positions 1, 2 or 3. The one time he opened in the last series — in Vizag — he appeared to cope well against the in-form Indian quicks. An alert fielder with a decent arm, the 36-year-old Atapattu remains particularly effective with run-outs.

The outstanding fielder of this side, Tillekeratne Dilshan, averages just under 30 in one-dayers but he has, of late, shown the ability to curb his aggressive instincts and rotate strike if the situation so demands. Russel Arnold is the perfect counterfoil to Dilshan in the middle overs.

This is a side with good balance. The impressive and potent bowling attack is led by Chaminda Vaas, the fifth highest wicket-taker in the one-day game, and Muttiah Muralitharan, whose complaint that the Power Play rule in limited overs cricket is working to keep spinners out of the game — "The rules have changed now with the 20-over Power Plays coming so the spinners go out of the game, you can't play two or three spinners any more; we have only one spinner at the moment so fast bowlers have more chance (of success) because they bowl in the power play." — doesn't exactly apply to him.

The last of the triumvirate of current bowlers that was a part of the successful 1996 Cup campaign is Jayasuriya. His flat left-arm spin, crucial for balance in team composition, is particularly effective at the death, as he showed in the match at Rajkot where Mahendra Dhoni, of all men, was unable to score the 11 runs needed for victory in the final over.

In addition the Lankans have the pacy Lasith Malinga to generate reverse swing and a steady flow of yorkers. Couple that with his peculiar slingshot action, and he could prove quite a handful for some batsmen. Until he improves upon his control, Farveez Maharoof is not a serious new ball threat.

The one significant advantage Sri Lanka has, going into the World Cup, is that none of its players are carrying injuries. The roster of casualties is long for other countries, particularly Australia, and for a side ostensibly loaded with geriatric men Sri Lanka isn't doing too badly.

Players to watch

Muttiah Muralitharan: Sri Lanka has been drawn in Group B along with India, which is probably why Muralitharan — the side's trump card even against India, whose batsmen are usually comfortable against spinners — was rested in the last series. The uncanny flexibility of his wrist helps him generate unexpected turn on relatively placid pitches and batsmen still find it hard to tell apart his doosra and the straighter one. He should expect a rich haul over the next month. By some indications this will be the last World Cup for the most controversial bowler in history — the 34-year-old, who with 432 wickets is only behind Wasim Akram in the one-day wicket-takers' list, reportedly wants to prolong his Test career.

Murali has been playing down Sri Lanka's chances at this World Cup, and believes the 1996 side was far better than the one headed to the Caribbean. Arjuna Ranatunga's team, the spinner believes, was a stronger batting unit, comprising several experienced men. "Some experts are tipping us to surprise a few at the World Cup and maybe even win it. I think we have a good chance but I still believe the Sri Lanka team of 1996 was better.

"When we won the World Cup in 1996, batting-wise the team had flair. Everything was there in that team in 1996. This team has a better bowling attack than what we had that time but we had a better balance in the 1996 World Cup because there were four spinners in the side and only two fast bowlers."

Kumar Sangakkara: The 29-year-old law graduate is one of the more astute thinkers in the Sri Lankan side, and has emerged over the past few years as the best wicketkeeper-batsman in the world. While Adam Gilchrist relies heavily on hand-eye co-ordination, Sangakkara is more "correct" particularly on the off-side. He is a natural puller — a large proportion of his sixes disappear over square-leg. Unlike Gilchrist, however, Sangakkara sometimes loses concentration and allows his aggression to overrun his response to situations.

Mahela Jayawardene: The captain looked tentative against the Indian bowlers last month and got out almost exclusively to poor strokes; but he is perhaps the classiest stroke-maker in the side and is due for a big score anytime.

He had a poor World Cup in 2003 and was dropped for a while but has since displayed a remarkably sound temperament. His last surge peaked with the 119 against England last season and the Sri Lankan record Test individual score of 374 made against South Africa, but his performance in one-day cricket hasn't been as consistent and he will certainly want to pump up that average of 31.71.

For anyone's money, the dark horse in this capable team.

Chaminda Vaas: At 33, Chaminda Vaas is just coming off the peak of his career. Part of the World Cup-winning squad when he was 22, the underrated Vaas has transformed over the years into a destructive seam bowler with great control over swing — perhaps the finest left-arm bowler since Wasim Akram. During the last World Cup he became the first man to take eight wickets in a one-dayer (against Bangladesh). Rested for the series against India, he should prove quite a handful in bursts.