Average, bad, worse, worst...

S. DINAKAR

The careers of Sanath Jayasuriya (left) and Mahela Jayawardene seem to be heading towards opposite ends. While Jayasuriya has been left out of the team for the Test series against India, Jayawardene is spoken of as a possible candidate for future captaincy.-V.V. KRISHNAN

SRI LANKA finds itself in a situation where tough decisions need to be taken. In India, it appeared a tired, ageing side that required fresh pairs of legs and a heart at the right place. Marvan Atapattu has received a lifeline in the form of being renamed skipper for the Test series. He could well be walking on thin ice if the side does not deliver the next time around in India.

These are difficult times for the island nation. It has slipped from the second to the fourth place in the ODI rankings. Even greater than the fall in the ratings has been the disappearance of the side's resolve. The Lankan surrender in the Videocon Series was meek and almost completely bereft of character. This is a side that is tough to beat in the sub-continental conditions. On this occasion, though, it crumbled. It was as if the team had sloughed off its competitive instinct.

Little went right for Atapattu and his men. If the team has the 2007 World Cup in its sights, the changes have to be made soon. The islanders cannot afford to let the moment fly away. Atapattu is a wonderful timer of the cricket ball. In India, his captaincy lacked the sense of timing. And decisiveness.

It was clear from the beginning of the tour that Sanath Jayasuriya's future lay in the middle-order. His place in the pantheon of explosive openers is unquestioned. But time waits for no one. In the India-Sri Lanka games of the past, Jayasuriya has often been the most influential cricketer. Whenever he has fired, Sri Lanka has seldom failed. He brought with him plenty of bad memories for the Indians.

Perhaps aggravating a shoulder injury in the days leading up to the series deprived him of finding the ideal batting rhythm, but Jayasuriya is not the player he once was. His eye and reflexes were his strengths, and he now finds less time to cope as the new ball whistles past him. Jayasuriya's dulled response to the sphere has meant that the bowlers are now choking and consuming him. Earlier, the extra split second he had at his disposal enabled him to create room to crash the ball square off the wicket with the short-arm jab of his — he did not require too much width to unleash the cut and the pull. Now, that advantage was gone.

The Indians operated cleverly at him. The pacemen, Ajit Agarkar in particular, bowled a fuller length and swung the ball into the left-hander. Denied room and undone by movement, Jayasuriya was often clueless. The conquest of Jayasuriya was one of the decisive factors in the Indian triumph. The Marauder from Matara will not be a part of the Test side landing in India during December. Probably he might return. Probably, he won't. The key to his ODI future lies in the middle order. He could still biff a few crucial runs at No. 6 or 7, and snare a couple of wickets with his left-arm spin. Jayasuriya could still be worth his place in the ODI team, but definitely not as an opener. The team management failed to see the wood for the trees in India though. Its obduracy in persisting with the ageing giant at the top of the order has hastened his decline.

Struggling for touch early on in the series, Atapattu pushed himself down to the middle-order. He consequently regained some form in Pune. The same should have been done with Jayasuriya. It is no coincidence that when two of the younger batsmen, Tillekeratne Dilshan and Russell Arnold, formed a partnership, Sri Lanka was able to halt a losing streak in Ahmedabad. The side needs to get these men up the order.

It did appear in the initial stages of the series that Sri Lanka had not comprehended the Super Substitute rule properly. And Atapattu committed a couple of blunders in choosing the Power Play overs. The team has to move with the times; Lanka has been rather slow in changing stripes. There is a fair amount of talent in the batting department and the left-handed Upul Tharanga is an aggressive, exciting batsman who needs to be given confidence. He should have been given a run right from the beginning of the series.

Coach Tom Moody has to work on the shot selection of the Sri Lankans. The Indian pacemen rightly focussed on length and the spinners were slower through the air. The Lankans should have countered the Indian ploy by driving or pushing in front of the wicket off the front foot. They opened the face of the willow and faced the consequences. The shot selection, for most part, was abysmal.

The over dependence of the Lankan attack on Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan is hurting the side. Vaas has reached that stage of his career when he needs a hint of assistance from the wicket. On the Indian surfaces, the left-armer found the going rough. Nuwan Zoysa was only good in parts, while Dilhara Fernando pitched short and wide in his quest to hustle the batsmen. He has the pace, but needs to use his weapons judiciously.

In Fernando and Lasith Malinga, the Lankans have pacemen who can sting. The challenge before the team-management would be to harness their speed and fire during the Test series. In hindsight, Malinga, who has that sling arm action, might have added more to the ODI side than those bits and pieces men.

Future hope... Kumar Sangakkara's aggression could well be what Sri Lanka is looking for in a leader. The wicket-keeper batsman is the favourite at the moment to succeed Atapattu as captain.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

The combative Fervez Maharoof is more than bits and pieces though. He is an intelligent paceman who seamed the harder ball both ways, and brought about subtle changes of pace in the end overs. With the willow, he struck the ball lustily in the climactic stages. Sri Lanka needs more of his ilk.

Muralitharan was brilliant in spells, but hardly received any spin support. Towards the end of the series, he was undone by injuries. The side just didn't have the bowling resources to apply pressure on India on a consistent basis. Once Muralitharan was off the attack, Sri Lanka struggled.

To their credit, the Indians did not allow the Lankan bowling to settle down. Irfan Pathan and Mahendra Singh Dhoni dented the visitors' attack psychologically as the surprise men at No. 3 in the crucial phase of the series. Sri Lanka could not regroup in time. Strategically, the visitors were out-thought by the Indians.

The Sri Lankans will have to grapple with the captaincy issue sooner than later. Atapattu was uninspiring in his leadership, and lacked the stamp of authority. He was unlucky with the toss in the first two games where India gained the early momentum. The Sri Lankans chased in Nagpur and there was some purchase for the spinners in the second half of the game. The side, inserted on a seaming pitch at Mohali, began with an obvious disadvantage. Conditions for batting eased in the evening of the day-night encounter. It's another matter that the Lankans could not find the will to conquer the conditions.

Lanka needs a new man to show fresh direction in the not too distant future. The choice for the successor boils down to Mahela Jayawardene and Kumara Sangakkara, although Chaminda Vaas has replaced the former as Atapattu's deputy. Vaas' elevation could be more to usher in a sense of discipline in the side — the left-armer is a wonderful role model for his attitude and fitness — than actually to promote him as skipper. Vaas, in the latter stages of his journey, is definitely not the long-term alternative.

Sangakkara's Jaipur heroics reflected the man's character — he is hard to break. He had batted through the full 50 overs of the Lankan innings for a well-paced hundred and then kept wickets with the energy and enthusiasm of a 20-year-old gloveman. He is strong mentally and he can communicate well. Sangakkara has a sharp cricketing mind and is an engaging character. He could get his men to rally behind him. The Sri Lankans lacked aggression in India and there is a very distinct aggressive streak to Sangakkara's cricket.

Jayawardene is a smart player. In Sri Lanka, they speak highly of his technical skills and tactical acumen. His removal from the vice-captain's slot is hard to explain especially in the context of Atapattu keeping his job. Stung by the setback, he fielded with tigerish resolve in Vadodara. Jayawardene could still be in contention for the top post. Eventually, it could still be a near thing between him and Sangakkara. It must be said though that the wicket-keeper batsman has the edge at the moment. He is the more forceful personality.

The Lankans need to pick up the pieces fast. Otherwise, Atapattu could well be living on borrowed time. Moody would be feeling the heat too.