Sri Lanka’s inconsistency, it rankles!

To become a great player takes hard work, commitment and experience. The current set of young Sri Lankan players don’t have these three factors at the moment and that is why you see the team performing inconsistently at the international level across all formats.

Kusal Mendis is one of Sri Lanka’s most promising batsmen. He is already being compared to Mahela Jayawardene.   -  Getty Images

Sri Lanka is perhaps maybe blessed with an abundance of talent but talent alone won’t make you a great player because it involves hard work, commitment and experience. The current set of young players don’t have these three factors at the moment and that is why you see Sri Lanka performing inconsistently at the international level across all formats.

To replace the likes of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight. Sri Lanka has some exciting young players in their ranks but it is going to take time to fill the stalwarts’ shoes.

 

On top of the list is the 22-year-old right-hander Kusal Mendis who has already shown glimpses of becoming one of the future stars. In his brief career of 17 Tests he has already played two monumental knocks — of 176 that set the tempo for Sri Lanka’s 3-0 whitewash of Australia at home in 2016 and a career-best 194 against Bangladesh at Galle early this year. These two innings have stamped him as a big game player and many past greats like Aravinda de Silva and Sangakkara have compared him to Mahela Jayawardene. He is still in the learning process and there have been occasions when he has thrown away his wicket when well set for a big innings.

Sri Lanka’s new Test captain Dinesh Chandimal, who replaced Angelo Mathews. Chandimal, however, will miss the first Test against India owing to pneumonia.   -  AP

Also in the limelight are two young hard-hitting wicket-keeper batsmen, Kusal Perera and Niroshan Dickwella, all-rounder Dhananjaya de Silva and a southpaw, Danuskha Gunathilaka — all in their mid-20s.

Then, there is the late developer, Asela Gunaratne. He is already 31, but has shown immense potential to be a finisher of matches and be a utility all-rounder. He has proved this across all formats and his recent good performance was scoring an unbeaten 80, despite being handicapped by a hamstring injury, to enable Sri Lanka successfully chase down 388 against Zimbabwe in the one-off Test in Colombo. Gunaratne is also a partnership breaker with his deceptive off-cutters.

Sri Lanka has also been boosted by the return to form of veteran opener Upul Tharanga. He had made his debut in 2005 and has now been entrusted with the one-day and T20 captaincy. Tharanga, for long, has been in and out of the Test and ODI sides, but the consistency he has shown with the bat in recent times, has seen him win back his place in the Test side as an opener partnering Dimuth Karunaratne.

Under a new Test skipper Dinesh Chandimal, who replaced Angelo Mathews after he stepped down from the captaincy following the ODI series defeat to Zimbabwe at home, Sri Lanka scored a morale-boosting win over Zimbabwe in the one-off Test. How much that win meant to a side struggling to come to terms with the loss of some of their former stalwarts was described by Chandimal.

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“What we wanted was this win. Today we got that. The players’ mental state is in good place. The Indian series is a big challenge. But we have plans, and we’ll keep making plans, as to how to play against India. We have a good start now. We saw the character of the team — how they picked themselves up. We have that mentality to achieve victory even when things look grim. My main goal is to win every game.” Chandimal will, however, miss the first Test against India, owing to pneumonia.

Although Sri Lanka are well served in their batting, the same cannot be said of their bowling which is over reliant on veteran spinner Rangana Herath. Herath has been Sri Lanka’s match-winning bowler in Tests since the retirement of Muttiah Muralitharan seven years ago and he has been bearing a heavy workload. In the recent Test gainst Zimbabwe, Herath bowled 71 overs for a match bag of 11 wickets.

Left-arm spinner Rangana Herath, who is the stand-in captain for Chandimal in the first Test, is Sri Lanka’s bowling mainstay. It is a matter of concern that no new match-winning bowlers are breaking through.   -  AP

How long Sri Lanka can rely on him to deliver is a matter of conjecture. Herath is now 39 years of age and although he is running about the field as if he was 10 years younger, Sri Lanka has yet to groom someone who can replace him.

Off-spinner Dilruwan Perera, who is 32, has proved an ideal foil to Herath’s left-arm spin, but he too is not a long term prospect. In this scenario the future for Sri Lanka after Herath looks bleak unless they can unearth a match-winning bowler from somewhere. Herath is also the stand-in captain for Chandimal in the first Test against India.

In the past two years or so they have tried out spinners like Lakshan Sandakan, who bowls left-arm chinaman, off-spinnner Tharindu Kaushal and left-arm spinner Milinda Siriwardana, but they have not been able to hold on to a permanent place in the team.

Sri Lanka has a nice pace quartet in Suranga Lakmal, Nuwan Pradeep, Lahiru Kumara and Dushmantha Chameera, but they are not bowlers who can win a match single-handedly.

The Lankan bowling looks thin and this is where India’s strong batting line-up can capitalise. The dice is heavily loaded against Sri Lanka in the upcoming series, but one should not forget the fighting spirit of the team to produce victories out of a hat — two good examples being Chandimal’s game-changing knock of 162 not out against India at Galle on their last tour to Sri Lanka in 2015 and quite recently their successful run chase to beat India’s total of 321 in the Champions Trophy match at the Oval.

Virat Kohli will certainly have those two stunning turnarounds at the back of his mind when his team takes on Sri Lanka in a series of three Tests and five ODIs with a one-off T20I thrown in for good measure.

What Sri Lanka is fighting to achieve is consistency in their performances. With the team still in a state of transition this is taking some time to attain. But there is a lot of hope among the support staff and the national cricket selectors headed by former captain Sanath Jayasuriya that they would turn the corner soon.

“We need to give them the confidence and have a very close relationship with this young side. Asanka Gurusinha (cricket manager) and the supporting staff will need to do it and they will come out of this situation. These are young players and they will learn and correct themselves. They should take on the responsibility,” Jayasuriya said.

The author is a senior cricket journalist based in Colombo