Much will depend on Malinga

Sri Lankan captain Angelo Mathews will expect veteran Tillekaratne Dilshan to fire at the top of the order.-K. R. DEEPAK

Sri Lanka comes with a pedigree in the competition. Winner in 1996 and runner-up in the last two editions, this is a side that can progress to the business end of the World Cup. But can the Sri Lankans do so in New Zealand and Australia?

Much will depend on the fitness of Lasith Malinga. This Sri Lankan slinger has been grappling with fitness concerns and it remains to be seen if he can bowl full clip.

In the past, Malinga’s deadly yorkers have meant the difference between a Sri Lankan victory and a defeat. When Sri Lanka triumphed in 1996, the side did so by stemming the flow of runs in the middle-overs by choking the opposition with accurate spin bowling backed by sharp fielding in the ring. The sub-continental tracks suited Sri Lanka’s game-plan.

In 2007, when the Sri Lankans once again progressed to the final, the team’s game-plan was helped by some dry, dual paced tracks that actually helped the spinners and encouraged reverse swing.

The World Cup moved to the sub-continent in 2011 and the Sri Lankans continued to rein in the opposition with spin and Malinga’s crafty bowling. And the batsmen were at home in familiar pitches.

The livelier surfaces of Australia and New Zealand might not suit the Sri Lankans who relish bowling in the slow, sub-continental tracks. The conditions down under will not favour the Sri Lankan style of play. The side will need to try a different strategy revolving around its pacemen.

At the 2003 World Cup in Southern Africa, Sri Lanka did make it to the semifinals and the side will take much heart from that performance. That was a competition where the Sri Lankans, on tracks assisting seamers, did manage to get out of the sub-continental mind-block. That side, however, possessed Muttiah Muralitharan, a bowler for all conditions. In Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena, the team has two giants who can still build monuments in demanding conditions. The team’s batting fortunes will hinge on these two stalwarts who are undaunted by adversity.

Skipper Angelo Mathews has made runs in crisis situations in the middle-order. He has also paced his innings capably to explode in the end overs. And then there is the intrepid Tillekaratne Dilshan, such an influential batsman at the top of the order. Sri Lanka would be less confident about the rest of its line-up. Men such as Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne, despite undoubted talent, are yet to pull their weight consistently in the international arena.

While there is a question mark against Lasith Malinga in the pace attack, Sri Lanka may expect more from Suranga Lakmal who can achieve good bounce.

Dhammika Prasad has been ruled out after suffering a fracture during practice. The experienced Nuwan Kulasekara, though lacking in pace, can put the ball in the right areas. And Mathews can chip in with his cutters. Yet, apart from Malinga, there is not one bowler who is threatening.

In spin bowling, the wily left-armer Rangana Herath and off-spinner Sachithra Senanayake will demand attention. However, Senanayake will be under the umpires’ scrutiny having already been pulled up for suspect action. The Sri Lankans will miss Muralitharan’s precious ability to extract turn from any surface and create pressure.

Given the lop-sided format, the Sri Lankans should make it to the quarterfinals comfortably. Then, the real battle would start.

* * * SANGAKKARA IN GREAT FORM

Central to Sri Lanka's campaign... Kumar Sangakkara, (left) and Mahela Jayawardena.-AP

Sri Lanka's obvious strength is Kumar Sangakkara. The ageless left-hander is in the form of his life. Sangakkara handles bounce and movement better than most batsmen. He has shots all round the wicket, including the horizontal bat strokes and can bat for long periods.

Although Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawerdena, Angelo Mathews and Tillekaratne Dilshan can contribute tellingly, the Sri Lankan batting does appear to lack depth. Too many hopes rest on a few batsmen.

The two new white balls to be used from either end in the competition could negate Sri Lanka's traditional strengths - spin and reverse swing.

With each ball in play for only 25 overs, the sphere might not get roughed up adequately to assist reverse swing. This could hurt the Sri Lankan bowling, particularly in the end overs.

And the two new balls will also mean less wear and tear on the sphere, a factor that could impact the spinners adversely.

The Sri Lankan attack could be tested. Although, he will have the canny Jayawardena and Sangakkara for guidance, it remains to be seen how captain Mathews copes with the high stress event.

* * * PLAYERS TO WATCH

Mahela Jayawardena: He finds the gaps with a surgeon's precision. Mahela Jayawardena - the World Cup will be his last competition for Sri Lanka - will be keen to prove a point. He can still dance down the wicket and play cracking shots. Exceptionally light on his feet, Jayawardena can conjure up heavy scores.

Kumar Sangakkara: The batsmankeeper is the ultimate all-rounder in the ODIs. A technically pleasing batsman with a wide array of strokes, Sangakkara also saves a place in the side with his smart work behind the stumps. Like Jayawardena, he is vastly experienced. And like Jayawardena, he can pace his innings wonderfully well in the ODIs.

Angelo Mathews: He has quickly climbed the rungs, moving from the periphery to the centre-stage. An attacking batsman with the ability to clear the ropes by a long way, Mathews is also a rather under-rated medium pacer who possesses a fine off-cutter. He has also made an impression with his cool-headed captaincy but the World Cup will be his big test.

Lasith Malinga: This fast bowler will be the key to the Sri Lankan fortunes. Yet, will he recover in time from a surgery on his left ankle to bowl at his best in the competition? The Lankans would want their pace bowling spearhead to be fit and firing in the tournament with his toe-crushers.

* * * THE TEAM

Angelo Mathews (captain), Lahiru Thirimanne, Dinesh Chandimal, Tillekaratne Dilshan, Rangana Herath, Mahela Jayawardena, Dimuth Karunaratne, Nuwan Kulasekara, Suranga Lakmal, Lasith Malinga, Jeevan Mendis, Thisara Perera, Kumar Sangakkara (wicketkeeper), Sachithra Senanayake and D.Chameera.

S. Dinakar