The Sunday Leader

What Will We Do Without The ‘Retiring’ Trio

IT’Srather a paradox that,whilst the careers of Sri Lanka’s three senior-most cricketersdraw to an end, their indispensabilityto the national team gets to be even more indisputable. There are credible reasons why the retirements of the illustrious trio cannot betoo far away. Mahela Jayewardene,Tillakaratne Dilshan and Kumar Sangakkara are in their mid-30s, each has already captained the country and their international careers have spanned 16, 14 and 13 years respectively, lengthy by any measurement.

And each having clinched one much-sought-after ICC award or another, you have to say that personallythere’s precious little left for the trio to accomplish at this point of their careers.It’s fair to say that they are at the stage where international cricketers as long in the game as they turn minds to life after cricket.

Thus,when earlier this year the new Sanath Jayasuriya-led Selection Committee spoke of the need to bring about a generational change in the national team, you didn’t have to have exceptional insight to know they were speaking of finding replacements for the seasoned trio. Some critics might’ve thought, and indeed vented, that the new selectors were on a witch hunt – harking back to the times when Jayasuriya’s relationship with Jayewardene and Sangakkara, during the duo’s captaincies, was not exactly cordial.It’s an open secret that Jayasuriya’s inclusion in the team late in his career had been politically prompted.

The unarguable fact, though, is the trio’s careers are now in the final phase, and, as selectors must, the Jayasuriya committee had to plan for the transition. So, even if it wasn’t stated publicly, the trio was going to henceforth come under scrutiny – meaning, the threewould be required to contribute as substantially and as consistently as expected of senior-most members – or give way to new blood.

After all, the selectors stated reason for the rebuilding exercise was to prepare for the2015 World Cup campaign. And the first step taken was to open doors to a host of fresh faces in the March series against Bangladesh, a series in which opener Kusal Perera broke into prominence, giving greater credence to furthering a policy of pursuing new blood.

All this might likely have caused some unease in the minds of the seasoned trio, Jayewardene especially, as it had been nearly a year since he last contributed a half century. In fact, the popular belief was that his inclusion for the coming June28-July11 tri-series in the West Indies would hinge on his Champions Trophy contributions – more of that later.

In the weeks prior to the Champions Trophy, the senior-most trio hardly had a satisfactory run in the six-week IPL competition; poor form had consigned Sangakkara and Dilshan to the bench for the better part of the event, whilst Jayewardene’s contributions were anything but encouraging. On top of that, at home, their participation in the IPL had aroused the ire of extreme nationalists, who threatened to inflict all sorts of nasty punishments on their return, including a welcome with rotten eggs, for their lack of “patriotism’’.

Whether such external pressures had something to do with their dismal performances in India is difficult to establish, but you also wonderedif their collective failure in the IPL was because they’ve gotten too long in the tooth. Had the ravages of time reduced the trio to lesser levels of perfection,and wondered if it wouldn’t be more feasible to blood the youngsters in the two years before the World Cup? – a question they would have to answer in the ongoing Champions Trophy competition.  Failureby any of the three would’ve been the first step down the road to retirement, or might even hasten retirement of his/their own volition, given the selectors determination to usher fresh names and the public shaming they were subjected to by extremist elements.

As well, the unceremonious exit of Thilan Samaraweera, also in his mid-30s, not many moons ago is not likely to have been lost on the trio. The solid middle order batsman was as good as told that he’s outlived his purpose and shown the door. So surely, the trio could not have been unaware that a lot was riding on their performances in the Champions Trophy, if they wereto prolong their careers until the next World Cup, a yearning that none of the three hasyet denied.

It is against this backdrop that the trio’s stirring performances in England must be judged. Few will oppose the claim that no contribution was more influential in securing Sri Lanka a place in the final four as those of the trio’s. The exemplary roles they had played bear not only eloquenttestimony to their undiminished skills and talents, but more importantly reflects their unbendable resolve to show that, when doubt clouds their careers, they don’t need favours from the politically powerful: they’ll fight their own cause. That’s a quality of character that brings triumph – and it did in England over the past week.

The New Zealand defeat the week before meant Sri Lanka’s chances of semi final qualification tread on thin ice: they could ill-afford a loss in either of their two remaining matches: against England and Australia. And when England put before Mathews’ men a target of 294, the tournament’s biggest run-chase yet, any arrangements for an early flight back home would not have been inappropriate.

The thoughts of the seasoned trio, however, wereset on a different course. From 10/1 in the second over, the seasoned trio took over the job, and after Dilshan and Jayewardene had finished their part, the job had been more than half done: 187/3 in the 36th over.Sangakkararemained to finish the job, in the 48th over, authoring a century that was defiant and charming, a graceful fencer fending multiple enemies … ah well,it’s best to leave the descriptions to poets thanus, mere cricket writers. After all, Sangakkara had sculpted awork of art.Of course, it would be a grave injustice to pass up unmentioned Kulasekera’s 38-ball 58. But the specialist bowler himself will admit that it was the presence of the redoubtable Sangakkara who provided him the licence to wage riot on the English bowlers. And he did, thrillingly. The senior-most trio’s input: 228 of the 294 required.

Against Australia, it was Jayewardene who enacted Horatius at the Bridge.He had seen Sangakkara perish for three and Dilshan for 34; Jayewardene had support from half centurion Thirimanne, but at 159/5 in the 37th over, a lot more had to be done – and quickly.In responding to urgency, where others might wield bat like an axe, Jayewardene’s wasmore a rapier; delicate but sharp, inflicting piercing pain rather than crunching hurt; an entertainer who pleases the eye more in the way a ballet dancer does than would, say,a Mike Tyson. It is fair to say that without Jayewardene’s undefeated 84, the outcome might’ve been different, his contribution being a third of Sri Lanka’s 253.

But then the outcome might well have been different were not the quietly prospering Australian last wicket stand ended. Their nos. 10 and 11 were required to score 62 to win. They had whittled that down to just 20 and were looking increasingly secure. But then the other senior-most player, Dilshan, grabbed quite an extraordinary one-handed catch off his own bowling – and victory and semi final appearance was secured.

Overcoming India in the semi final, however, was never going to be easy, but the wrong turn of the coin for Mathews made the task even more difficult. It wasn’t a pitch to bat first on, and when the coin fell in favour of Dhoni, India had pretty much got one leg into the final. Sri Lanka’s batsmen fought a desperate battle against seemingly insurmountable odds, and mustered 181, not quite a total of winning of proportion but admirable all the same, given the inhospitable conditions from which it was eked.The pitch conditions were clearly kinder during India’s innings, but restricting the in-form Indian batsmen to fewer than 181 was going to be difficult in any condition.

That Sri Lanka got as far as the semi final is commendable, given that the team is amidst a transition – excuse me, transition…? Not with the three senior-most players yet indispensable.

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